No place like home – how people use our website, and what we need to learn

When we look at new designs for websites, it’s common to go straight for the home page. This is the shop window, the first thing people see, our first impression. It’s important to get that right, to set the tone of the experience. Laying everything out clearly so people can find exactly what they need to.

Except, well, it’s not actually what happens.

In the real world, Google is our home page.

We use Google analytics to find out how people are using our website, and after having read and said ‘every page is a landing page’ so many times, I wanted to look at the actual numbers.

Because numbers are convincing.

Sessions graphIn February, 88% of sessions on our website, did not include a single visit to our home page.

Just under 9% started on the home page.

Our home page is the home page in less than 10% of visits.

Not only that, but we can also tell that people who aren’t visiting our home page are probably having a better experience, finding what they need quicker, with less work, how can we tell?

It’s the analytics again.

People who use the home page are 12 times more likely to use search.

We tend to see site search as an indicator of bad content, as it means people can’t find what they are looking for. This isn’t always the case, as sometimes people just prefer to search than navigating through the website, so we probably need to do a bit more research here, but it’s an interesting bit of data.

We can also see that people who don’t use the home page spend half the time and half the pages on their visits. This is probably a good thing for them, as it implies they’re finding what they’re looking for quickly.

We’re making assumptions here, but actually, we can check these assumptions by thinking about our own experience and how it matches with user testing, by us and across the sector.

There’s no place like home (except everywhere else)

We need to remember we’re building all of our web pages to be the first page people look at.

We need to be sure our page titles are precise and particular, and our content is focused enough that people find the right page when they need it. Fancy people call this SEO, or search engine optimisation, I prefer to think of it as good, clear content.

We can’t rely on a good page structure or a clear home page to make our website work, it’s about making every page good. Every page linked to other relevant content. Every page clear and easy to use.

Without being mentioned, this was made really clear in our first beta website designs, which didn’t even include a design for a home page. The home page isn’t the first thing to get right, it’s one of the last.

We can see this in other organisations. The NHS alpha website launched it’s content without a home page, writing:

In NHS Choices, 1.4% of total visits start at the homepage. The vast majority (78.6%) come via search. (Data period: 11/2014 – 11/2015). For a high traffic site like NHS Choices, 1.4% isn’t an insignificant figure as it translates to 8.7million visits. Therefore, the homepage is still relevant, but it’s all the more important to get right what it navigates to first.

Another interesting example is Quartz. They’re a news organisation, and even with digital variants of these, it’s hard to find a sector more obsessed with the front page. Both Reddit and Digg claim to be the front page or home page of the internet. The old newspapers are all clamouring for their home page to be your home page.

But Quartz came along with a new idea (probably the right idea).

Quartz launched without a homepage. If you went to QZ.com, you just went straight to their most popular article at the time. They know that news is being shared directly by people on social media. Why would you want one home page, when you have the home page built by your own personalised stream of recommendations from friends, influencers and interesting people. Everyone is trawling the internet and sharing the best bits. Who has time for a home page, when you have that?

In an interview with Fast Company design Quartz’s executive editor said:

The idea of a strictly traditional homepage that people bookmark to find stories is, we think, outdated. But at the same time, we don’t want to be defeatist about it. There’s still a large number of people coming to the homepage each day. So we’ve asked ourselves, ‘If you start throwing out the old conventions, what can you do instead?’

So they started with nothing, and have iterated new and different home pages since then. (Though I think they were bolder when they went without).

We aren’t a news company, but we can take inspiration from them.

The way social media is disrupting news is similar to the way google has disrupted how we find information.

The key is, it’s not about home pages, it’s about users. We need to put the information exactly where people look for it, rather than trying to push people towards it.

It’s a big job, but we’re up for the challenge.

Designing for mistakes

“We must design our machines on the assumption that people will make errors.”
Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

People make mistakes. It’s not their fault. Mistakes are merely accidents.

They happen because of random distractions in daily life, small keyboards on touch devices, the dreaded autocorrect and for so many other reasons.

It’s our job to understand these potential mistakes and craft solutions for when they happen.

Bus pass renewals

We’ve recently been working on moving our older person’s bus pass renewals process from paper to a digital transaction. We want to make it easier for council staff to process the renewals and reduce the inconvenience of customers having to go to the post box to send the letter back to us.

Old approach

  1. A citizen receives a letter reminding them to renew their bus pass
  2. The citizen signs the letter and posts it back to us.

New approach

  1. A citizen receives a letter reminding them to renew their bus pass
  2. The citizen has two options:
    • visit the web link included in the letter and complete an online form
    • or, sign the letter and post it back to us.

Our new letter takes inspiration from the Register to Vote letter everyone should have received recently. It highlights the digital service as the primary method of applying.

The new renewal letter with the words 'Renew online: It's easier and faster online. Go to: www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/renew-bus-pass. You'll need your bus pass ID number: 1850322'
Our new renewal letter

We started sending the new letters out in January and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We were interested to see the digital take-up of a transaction that is purely for older people who generally have lower levels of digital literacy compared to the wider population.

  • 6,500 renewal letters sent out
  • 1,650 renewals completed online
  • 2,500 renewals completed by post.

We’re very happy with a 40% digital take-up of received renewals and expect this to grow as we develop the transaction.

However, with some great customer feedback and analytics we knew we could make some minor adjustments and design solutions for the occasional mistakes that can happen.

Rescuing citizens from mistakes

The mistakes we’ve noticed start before citizens even reach our digital service.

It’s important to remember that our digital transactions don’t sit in isolation. They have to work on different web browsers on different devices.

Mistyping the web link

We all make typos. This isn’t usually a big deal, but it’s vital if people need to type in a web address to get to a specific service.

The correct link is brighton-hove.gov.uk/renew-bus-pass

Thanks to Google Analytics, we were able to quickly find the most common mistakes people were making:

  • /renewbuspass
  • /renew-buss-pass

Here are a selection of less common typos:

  • /renew-bus-pas
  • /renewal-bus-pass
  • /renew-buspass
  • /renew-bus pass
  • /renew – bus – pass
  • /renew.bus.pass
  • /renew-bus-bus
  • /renew-bus-[ass
  • /renew-bius-pass

Solution

Create redirects from the most common typos and point them to the correct web link.

We’ve done this for:

We will keep monitoring our analytics and add additional redirects if we notice other common mistakes.

We can’t predict every typo and we have to expect some people will come across 404 Page not found. For these customers, we’ve made sure ‘renew bus pass’ and similar terms will show the correct content on our internal search.

Typing the web link into the Google search box

This behavior is more common than you think. Around 60 citizens typed the web link into Google. Even though newer web browsers combine URLs and search into one text field, many others don’t.

The Google search box with the term 'https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/renew-bus-pass'

For these customers, we didn’t do a great job. They could still reach the transaction, but they had to navigate three webpages first. That’s not good enough.

The problem happened because the web link we use is a short URL (like bit.ly) and it linked directly to our online forms system and not a normal webpage. These short URLs and online forms aren’t indexed by search engines and therefore customers couldn’t directly reach the transaction from the results page.

This is a technical issue, but will be common across local authorities who use external form suppliers.

Solution

Change the digital service start page so that it sits on our main council website. This will make it easier for search engines to index the page.

Make sure the terminology used on this page matches the short URL. This will increase the chances of search engines making it the top result for when people type the web link into the search box.

This is an on-going process. However, we hope to have this resolved for when the next batch of renewal letters are sent out.

Summary

Our digital services should be easy and fast to use. Yet, mistakes can often lead to frustration.

It’s our intention to craft solutions that are invisible. In these situations, we don’t need our citizens to know they’ve made a mistake. They should just be able to complete the task and get on with their lives.

Working with Scrum

Scrum. To most people, scrum is what happens in a game of rugby. In the world of digital, it means something very different. Scrum is a way of developing digital content. It’s an agile working method that’s used heavily in companies like Amazon, Spotify and Netflix.

Scrum is all about developing digital content iteratively. Rather than having all of your requirements and specifications up front as you would in a more traditional project, these are less important than user testing and shaping content based on customer feedback. Testing happens throughout the process.

Scrum usually works in two week blocks called sprints. At the end of the sprint, the aim is to have something that works and that can be tested – even if it’s basic and un-user friendly. Any changes that are needed are fed into the next sprint. These iterations are crucial.

With more traditional project methods, user testing usually isn’t done until the end and this can cause problems. When the project has reached the end, requirements may have changed, which could mean the product is no longer relevant and lots of time would have been wasted. Customers may use it and decide it’s not good enough or not what they wanted. Again, this results in wasted time for everyone.

This is why Scrum is great for producing digital content. It’s flexible, failure is fine (if something isn’t right, no problem; you can start again in the next sprint) and testing with the end users is a core part of the process. This means you know that whatever you’re making is customer focused.

However, whilst Scrum is fantastic in certain organisations, in others it can cause problems. I’ll talk more about this in my next blog post.

What do you think?

As we work on new areas, we’ll blog about the work we’re doing. We always welcome your feedback, so please leave a comment below or email beta.feedback@brighton-hove.gov.uk