Every few months, I get a mental block on how my recycling bin collection works. It’s a modern disease: is it blue this week or next week? And if it’s brown, does that mean black goes out as well? And green, that’s every week, right? Given that my neighbours all seem to have the same problem (every Thursday, my street’s a sea of different coloured plastics), the only place to find the answer is the Manchester City Council website.
So, being a User Experience and information architecture geek as well as a tragic recycling loser, I was excited to visit the redesigned council website and see that ‘Bins’ has been given pride of place at the top of the new homepage. (I wasn’t surprised, though — when I worked on a local authority website a few years ago, our research found that bin days were the number one item of content that users were after.)
I was even more excited when I started exploring the website properly and noticed something odd at the top of the page: no navigation.
Council websites are notorious for their challenging content structures as they contain a massive volume of information aimed at a huge number of different user groups. Traditionally this has been solved with standard mass-navigation techniques: directory-style homepages with categorised areas of links; mega menus showing multiple content levels; strongly branded landing pages; and sometimes basic personalisation and page popularity techniques to increase or decrease the importance of specific items of content on the homepage. Despite all this, most council websites are still confusing mazes of menus.
The Manchester website dumps all of these tactics and instead focuses on simplification and prioritisation of content, and, interestingly, on individual task-based user journeys: once you set out on a particular path, there’s no way to navigate to a different task unless you go right back to the homepage and start again.
Some would say this is a brave strategy because it discourages wider exploration of the website and of the council’s services. But it’s also very sensible because it allows users to complete their task without distraction; removing a menu and sidebars of links will literally make the expanse of forms and tables of data results easier to read, understand and use. This is holistic simplification — making not only the user interface but the whole end-to-end user journey simpler.
The Manchester City Council website’s not the first large public sector site to pull this trick — Gov.uk showcased a similar pared back and focused navigation strategy a couple of years ago, and I love it. Part of the job of a UX Architect is to make user experiences better and interfaces less intrusive for users, and that’s exactly what the designers of the Gov.uk and the Manchester site have done.
After my initial excitement, however, I remembered that the public sector can arguably get away with this single-minded approach because onward journeys simply aren’t as important here as they are in the private sector. The other part of a UX Architect’s job is to help an organisation achieve its aims, and, in this regard, Manchester council has it easy — they’re not selling services, and they can afford for their customers to fulfill a single task and then leave because they know they’ll come back again next time they need to.
When we work on a site here at Code, it’s usually important that, once we’ve helped the user achieve their task, we keep them with us, and don’t send them away. Onward journeys are critical — while it’s great when somebody comes to Oxfam.org.uk and donates money, it’s even better if they then go on to sign up for Trailtrekker or send a tweet to support the IF campaign.
Understanding users and their motivations, and ensuring that the user journeys don’t end after the first conversion, is something we spend a lot of time thinking about here. The maturity of personalisation solutions (for example, the powerful Digital Marketing Suite in Sitecore) makes this even more effective, allowing us to bring an extra dimension and richness to the content we offer individual users, learn about their behaviour and target the most likely subsequent conversions directly at them.
But we can still learn from the single-minded approach of sites like Manchester.gov.uk or Gov.uk. We’ve known for years that removing navigation from checkout processes increases conversion, and that hiding navigation behind a button improves the user experience on small screens. Neither of these methods are a million miles away from losing navigation altogether.
The key is to define when we want our customers to be fully focused on a task, and when we want to encourage or persuade them to visit other content, and then ensure that our interfaces respond appropriately.
Like telling me about my bin days. It’s blue and green this week, by the way. Now, does a cardboard tub with a plastic top go in blue, or brown? Or black?