Forget apps! Top tips for designing council websites

Creating responsive websites is preferable to producing service-specific apps, according to a new list of recommendations for local authorities designing digital services. Read the full list here.

The recommendations are in the words of reviewers based on the advice, trends and observations they gathered as they helped produce Socitm’s Better connected 2014: a snapshot of all local authority websites.

Here are the recommendations in their words from reviewers based on the advice, trends and observations that they have reported.

1. Think mobile

  • ‘Think mobile’ in everything you do from now on. This will lead to simpler pages, fewer choices on a page, hard pruning of extraneous content, customer focus and ultimately websites that are easier to manage. Mobile layouts need as much care as the desktop version. Stripping out search and key navigation in favour of a few deep links is not helpful as most people will have to switch to the desktop version to find what they want.
  • Pay attention to how your site performs on a mobile – even some minor adjustments to a desktop site can make it more usable on a mobile.
  • Simplify further home pages and sites in general. Accept that users will increasingly be using mobile devices and think hard about what they are likely to need and make it easy for them to find it.
  • Test forms on a mobile device and think carefully about how much ‘guff’ the user has to wade through. And think about who might be using report forms. I found on one site (for real – not while doing this survey) that you can’t report fly-tipping if you don’t have a local postcode.
  • Go for better mobile responsiveness that is presented automatically when you access any page by mobile device, not just the home page.
  • Review site with mobiles in mind – top tasks, plain English, excellent search, remove carousels and pictures, use of maps.
  • Design with small screens in mind from the ground up – planning and executing content and structure accordingly. If the mobile version does not need rotating carousels, news, images and promotions, then does the desktop? What makes for a good mobile experience often makes for a quicker and easier desktop experience too. It would be really great if councils could give up the idea of pushing information at people via their websites, and concentrate solely on allowing people to find what they want with maximum ease. After all, if you are going on to a council website to look for something, you will ignore everything that is not relevant to the task in hand. And who last visited a council website just for a general nose around? Adopt the GOV.UK strapline ‘simpler, clearer, faster’!
  • Obviously, think mobile! The sites that have done nothing to cater for mobile visitors are now seriously falling behind.

PS Mobile apps

  • If you do provide an app, promote it in a position on the page where someone accessing the site on a mobile screen will actually notice it.

2. Keep it simple!

  • Strip down your website and get rid of the unnecessary pages of information which have been hanging around for years. There are still too many sites in need of a severe pruning and different user journeys uncovering different, yet similar, content.
  • Resist the ‘magazine’ tendency. People largely do not come to a council website to browse. They are now familiar with carrying out tasks online and that’s what they want to do here.
  • Try and avoid ‘pdfs’, which may be OK in moderation but lengthy ‘pdfs’ are never good.
  • Stop describing the service at the top of each page. I don’t need to know how many enquiries xx department deals with each year.
  • Ensure that complex tasks are carefully explained, for example, the difference between benefits, support and discounts.

3. Be relentless about top tasks

  • Pay attention to the second most popular task for each topic; many of these seem to have been neglected.
  • Prioritise content on landing pages according to what the customer wants.
  • Embed top-task approaches in all areas, including main page copy, not just tacked on in little panels or menus.
  • Make the home page and the landing page more task-focused and really look at the minutia of the task flow.
  • Avoid alphabetical lists of tasks, particularly if you include verbs in the task description such as “apply”. Make sure lists are prioritized according to customer need.

4. Get that customer journey right

  • Make sure I can get back to the home page of the site from the different apps, eg jobs, council minutes and agendas, etc.
  • Do more to link up related content better, so that when you arrive deep within a site from Google, you can navigate to surrounding content related to the specific page / topic easily. Lots of councils have routes that lead to slightly different content; so, make sure all routes lead to the same content, accurate and focused.
  • Review navigation to be less departmentally structured and more suitable for users.
  • Stop putting important information under headings like Further Information or Downloads.
  • Don’t require registration up-front for online transactions – let people complete their task and then invite them to sign up with those details afterwards.
  • Put as much effort into landing and service pages as you do for the home page. Maybe pretend you don’t actually have a home page?
  • Ensure that individual elements of content are linked in a logical way, where a task is particularly complex with a number of sub-journeys. For instance, if you list the committees that a councillor belongs to, provide a link to the committees and then on to the calendar of meetings and reports, etc. Don’t just expect users to search for every piece of information.

5. Take full advantage of sharing

  • Take advantage of external third party sites that provide information better than you do – we recommend the ones that we have found on some council websites, for example the NHS/CQC databases for care homes, the etc.
  • Share with your neighbours. I saw many sites, for example in Dorset, of course, and also in Yorkshire, where content was shared between areas and this is very effective and efficient in time and resource.

6. Be really transparent

  • Be more open about political responsibility and sort out your democracy sections – still far too many that are complex, labyrinthine, unusable.

In conclusion

Get the basics right! Don’t bother with apps. Make sure you have a responsive website that works well on tablets and mobiles. Rationalise your content. Be aggressively focused on the user. Get a continuous improvement plan in place and test, test and test again with real people. Work with other councils to force suppliers to improve their products.


The best websites, hands down, are those that focus on de-cluttering content and making customer journeys as simple as possible.

Reproduced with kind permission of Socitm.

Colin Marrs

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