User experience (UX) is a term that has gained more traction over the last few years – businesses are now realising the importance of not only designing aesthetically pleasing websites and online services, but ones which provide a great user journey too. However, the public sector is one which has traditionally lagged behind when it comes to online services – predominantly as it has lacked the funds and digital know-how.

Indeed, earlier this year the Society of Information Technology Management reported that a third of local council websites failed accessibility testing – ensuring that they work for those with visual, cognitive, auditory, or physical impairments. This comes following the legislation passed by the European Commission in 2016 which ruled all public-sector websites and mobile applications in Europe must, by law, become more accessible. Add to this, recent research we conducted into the UX of 10 UK housing associations (HAs), which found that a number of them are falling behind when it comes to facilitating online users.

This is concerning, considering the fact that as the housing sector – and the wider public sector – continues to face budgetary constraints, HAs are increasingly looking to move more of their services online. Understandable, since it is predicted that the average cost of an online interaction is £0.15, compared to £2.83 per phone transaction and a massive £8.62 for a face to face one. Not limited to solely budgetary savings, in the housing sector a good online experience has the potential to simplify processes, improve customer service and increase tenant engagement.

But, often with limited digital knowledge, how can housing associations and other public sector organisations ensure they’re getting it right when it comes to their online presence?

Top Tips for Improving the Online Experience

 For associations looking to bring their online experience up to scratch, there are some basic things that should be taken into consideration – and while these tips have been created with the housing sector in mind, many will be applicable across various sectors. Creating inclusive online services that work for all users does take time and resource, however, following investment, websites will be more effective, easier to operate, and result in better ROI.

To make a website more usable, HAs should present information in a clear and concise way, ensure essential information is displayed on appropriate areas of the site and implement a visual hierarchy so users are guided through the journey. The design should be uncluttered and the navigation system should be uncomplicated. ‘Call to actions’ need to be clear and HAs should also avoid the use of ‘carousels’ if possible – a popular design trend which can lead to users missing information.

For HAs looking to improve their online self-service, they should consider developing a secure online account system that is easy to locate and operate for all users, ensure tenants can find what they’re looking for within an account, and consider offering a wider range of services online.

Getting Accessibility Right

There are also a number of factors organisations can apply to ensure their website is accessible to all users – something which will become increasingly important as the UK faces a population which is living longer, often with long-term disabilities.

For users with autism, organisations should use simple colours, ensure layouts are uncomplicated and consistent, and make use of descriptive buttons. It’s also important to avoid the use of bright contrasting colours, walls of text and complex and cluttered layouts.

To accommodate those users with a physical or motor disability, a website should have large, clickable actions and provide shortcuts. Websites should be designed for keyboard or speech only use, and should not bunch interactions together or demand precision.

For those who need the assistance of screen readers, layouts should be built for keyboard use and follow a linear, logical structure. Websites shouldn’t only show information in an image or video – it should instead describe images and provide transcripts, ­and avoid spreading content all across the page.

Good contrasts and a readable font size are imperative to accommodate users with low vision. Websites should publish all information on web pages (as opposed to documents such as PDFs), use a combination of colour, shapes and text and avoid burying information in downloads.

For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, it’s important that content on websites is written in plain English with a logical, linear layout in place. Video or audio content should come with subtitles or transcripts and it’s vital to ensure telephone isn’t the only method of contact with the organisation for users.

As housing associations, and the wider public sector, continue on the path towards becoming ‘digital by default’, organisations will increasingly be required to assess the user experience of their websites from the outset. With an increasing number of public services moving online, creating a great UX can not only result in increased efficiencies, but also save costs and bolster an organisation’s reputation.

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About The Author

Managing director at Sigma

Established in 2007, Sigma is a leading digital User Experience (UX) agency, which designs, develops and supports information-rich web sites, intranets, mobile solutions and applications. By putting users at the heart of its solutions, Sigma helps to add genuine business value and bring people together. Sigma works with companies large and small, in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, nationally and internationally. The team believes strongly in developing long term, mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with its customers, with key clients including InterContinental Hotels Group, Sport England and the BBC. In addition, Sigma also runs the North’s leading digital UX event – Camp Digital. Now in its sixth year, Camp Digital attracts world-class speakers who discuss the most important topics and trends in the UX and digital community. Sigma is part of Sigma IT Consulting – a Swedish IT Services firm with over 3,500 staff throughout the world.