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www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Current thinking about mobile device access of council websites

simon gray 2013-06-20, 17:13:18
Read this article aloud — 1997 words

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

On 11 June 2013, Socitm – the national association of people working in the field of public sector online services – held an event to present their latest findings in the area of how people are using mobile devices to access council websites.

The headline fact that was revealed was that during the first five months of 2013, 27% of visits to council websites were from mobile devices – ie, 27% of the people looking at and doing things on council websites were by people using mobile phones and tablets, as opposed to on laptops and desktop computers.

Rubbish, leisure, and schools were the top three areas which people were more likely to look at on mobile rather than desktop, with libraries and housing following behind. Transport information, roads and streets, jobs, council tax, and planning also all featured high in the list of services accessed with a mobile device, but at roughly the same proportion as desktop users. The other usual high hitters were on the list as well, but interestingly parking – a service one might have thought particularly appropriate for mobile – had about 4% fewer accesses from mobile devices than from desktops. What the data didn’t explicitly show was what particular schools information people were looking for on their mobiles, but we can infer from the timing that it was mostly people looking for information about school closures during the winter (and early spring) snow events.

What the data also doesn’t yet show is the balance between people using mobile phones and people using tablets – this could be quite interesting, because for the most part tablet browsers behave more like desktop browsers rather than phone browsers (which has relevance to page design and content), but the main usage scenarios are different – for example, mobile phones will be most often used out in the mobile arena (on a bus, walking down the street, in the pub or a restaurant, or at work for personal browsing purposes etc), whilst tablets will be most often used at home. But the difference between tablet usage at home and desktop usage is most people with tablets will likely have them in handy locations where they themselves are – eg, on the coffee table by the sofa, or in the kitchen, or on the bedside table, whilst conversely most people’s desktop computers are in a separate room in the house, and even their laptops when not kept in the laptop bag will still need to be turned on before use. The implications of this are that the number of ‘impulse’ website visits are likely to increase as tablet market penetration increases, and we need to be able to meet that demand by being able to offer the richer experience than phones that tablets can provide, whilst still accounting for the fact that even on a retina display iPad 4 you can’t cram as much information on the screen as on a desktop computer with a 21″ monitor. Socitm are going to look at seeing if there are easy ways in which that extra data can be determined.

People using mobile devices compared to desktop users are much more likely to be looking for information than wanting to carry out some form of transaction, be that literally paying for something or completing a form to report or book something – on desktops, 55% of visitors are looking for information, 26% want to complete a transaction, and 19% want to do something else, but on mobiles 64% are seeking information compared to 23% wanting to perform a transaction – so whilst it’s right for us to continue to work to ensure transactional pages offer increasingly good customer experiences on mobile devices, we need to never forget the purpose of a website being to provide information to people, especially for mobile users. When one considers it will always be much easier to make a phone call with a mobile phone than to fill in a form on one, this isn’t too surprising. We also learned from one council that people looking at pages about actual physical locations appear quite high in their mobile access statistics.

One surprising piece of information we learned is ‘task failures’ (Socitm-speak for people coming to a website and being unable to do or find what they went there for) are only slightly higher on mobile than desktop; unsurprisingly, visitor satisfaction is significantly lower from mobile users than from desktop users – as the localgovweb community, between us we all have a lot more work to do to improve the mobile experience for people. An interesting addendum to the visitor satisfaction statistic is that it has been steadily dropping overall over the last few years, during a period when most councils have been working hard to try to make their websites better for people! Could this be due to the various experiments different councils have been trying in order to break away from the old LGNL navigation paradigm? Could it be due to some councils trying to artificially massage their sites in order to gain favourable results in the annual Better Connected report (against Socitm’s own advice, I might add) to the exclusion of the rest of their content? Or could it be due to the fact that users are simply becoming more sophisticated and expecting more and better from their council websites? In our own case, we know that some of the dissatisfaction logged against our website turns out not to be dissatisfaction with the site, but the service – so for example, there aren’t many jobs on our website, but a large number of people log that in the exit questionnaire as a complaint about the website rather than a complaint about there not being very many jobs at all! Whatever the reason for the drop, it’s a challenge for us again from the wider community to look more closely at the data to put a v in the line and make it rise again.

What does this mean for mobile strategy for the future?

The first point is there should be no mobile strategy. Or rather, we should not think about mobile strategy in isolation – we need to focus on creating and implementing overall digital strategies, which should encompass mobile strategies as part of that as well as other digital access channels. That might seem to be stating the obvious, but since many councils are still at the early stages of actually strategising their digital presences (as opposed to just getting on with it), it’s a point worth emphasising!

We were warned against making too many unwarranted assumptions about people’s mobile usage habits without data to back those assumptions up – for example, we can’t assume that everybody wants to do location-specific things with their mobile devices; we can focus on giving those tasks an especially good mobile experience, but not at the expense of ensuring non-location-specific tasks also give a good mobile experience. As noted above, the middle ground of tablet devices allows for a near-desktop experience with the convenience of doing so on a device which is usually immediately to hand and switched on, at home rather than out and about. And just because people are on the move when using their phones, that doesn’t always mean they’re in a hurry – although if people are physically on the move, any mobile system needs to be able to cope with signal dropout gracefully.

We need to be pragmatic about what might be achievable – but we also should be creative in our pragmatism. For example the civically-engaged person walking along the street spotting a planning or licensing application notice on a lamppost might want to log the url for more information on their phone, but it would be unreasonable of them to expect the full experience of being able to open the .pdfs of the detailed drawings and view them on their 4″ screen and post detailed comments back using their phone keyboard. But a creative use of the technology across a wider digital strategy would allow the user to start the process of looking at the planning application on their phone, logging it for future reference, and then being able to easily complete the process later on resuming from where they left off when they get to a desktop computer. 90% of people do indeed use multiple devices to accomplish an online goal, so we need to make that easier for them.

We know that 92% of UK adults personally own some form of mobile phone, and 39% of us access the internet on one – 64% of us with smartphones access the internet on it at least once a day. Actual mobile usage patterns depend on a number of factors – demographics, local or national news events, time of day, time of year, even the weather. We especially saw the effect of weather on usage during the snow events, as people found it much easier to check for school closures and other disruption first thing in the morning on their phones than on their computers. And in more isolated communities, power cuts can make mobile the only option – in those instances, people need to get essential information as quickly and easily as possible, so they can conserve their precious battery power.

And rather than thinking about hiding content and components in a form from a mobile view, we should think the other way around – is this extra content necessarily relevant for the desktop version? In our own thinking about content strategy we suggest a complete separation of service information from the information about the policy behind the service provision, as can be demonstrated in our recently created suite of pages about bus lane enforcement. So if a paragraph of text looks like needless fluff on the mobile screen, then it’s also needless fluff on the desktop; if it’s content which is secondary to the primary purpose of the page, don’t assume desktop users will be interested in it but mobile users not – separate it out into another page.

And finally, as we see the trend move in the direction of mobile access taking over (but – emphatically – never replacing) desktop access, we should turn our thinking about how our page layouts are constructed – rather than planning for graceful degradation of layouts as the user’s screen gets smaller as most mobile-friendly sites are currently built, we instead need to move in the direction of planning and designing for progressive enhancement, starting with the assumption of most users’ screens being 2″ wide in portrait orientation, progressively growing to 21″ landscape – and also along the way accounting for the increase of laptop screens which are wider and shallower than the 16:9 aspect ratio we’ve become accustomed to on desktops.

You can see the presentations containing sources for some of the facts quoted on Socitm’s page for the event.

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