12 October 2010
We keep hearing about the cuts. About how councils are going to have to do more with less. It seems like an impossible task, and maybe it is.
But if you work on a council website you can make a start today by simply removing all the stuff on your site that really doesn’t need to be there.
This will be both the cheapest and highest-value redesign you’ll ever do.
It will save you money on your hosting costs. Less stuff on a page means less data coming down the pipe. Lower bandwidth charges.
Your pages will load faster and you’ll be able to defer server upgrades longer.
People will be happier that their pages load more quickly.
People will be happier that they can find what they want more easily without having to wade through clutter and confusion.
You will save on development and maintenance costs. Deleted content and features cost nothing to maintain. You’ll never have to review, fix, redesign or rewrite them again.
With a bit of luck you’ll find that you don’t need a mobile website. Your current site, without the clutter, will do just fine.
And once you get into the habit, you’ll start to be a lot more discriminating about what you put on your site in the first place. The default answer is no. Anything that goes on has to fight for its place.
To get started you’ll need a structure and a strategy.
The structure is that you’ll remove one thing every day. It’s very unlikely that you’ll run out of things to delete, but worry about that “problem” when you get there.
One word, sentence or paragraph.
One form field.
Just something. Get rid of it.
The strategy is a little bit harder. How do you know what to delete?
The short answer is anything you can live without.
I’ve been through my own council’s website looking for examples. So far they break down into these categories, which should give you some inspiration:
A to Z navigation. Every council site has it. But what’s it for? Your site surely isn’t a phone book that needs an index. It’s probably a hold-over from the days of static sites that didn’t have a good search feature, if they had one at all. You probably had far fewer pages in those days too so the list of links on each letter page was much shorter. Sort out your search if you need to (make it prominent, fast and accurate) and drop the A to Z.
Cargo cults are things you do because other sites do them without you giving any serious consideration of the value they provide. Perhaps they’re required by some guidelines somewhere. Maybe they made sense once but not any longer. Question them. Challenge them. Think about it. Then do what you think is right as long as you can defend it.
Badly written copy. Copy that’s too long. Stuff that’s too time-sensitive for you to maintain properly. Reams of instructions for things that should be simple enough to use without explanation. Fix the underlying issues if necessary, then delete them.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Browsers and computers have got built-in features for changing the text size, adding bookmarks, displaying the time and date and managing subscriptions to content. Don’t waste your time doing things that are already done perfectly adequately elsewhere. Could your contact form be replaced with just a simple email address?
A picture is worth a thousand words, several thousand bytes, quite a bit of money every year in bandwidth and a fair amount of time to source, resize, upload and review. They take up your readers' time and attention too, often drawing their eye from the real content on a page. Imagine this page without the text headings. Now imagine it without the photos. See which one works?
So treat pictures as content rather than decoration and make every one count. If a picture isn’t high-quality and supremely relevant to the page then drop it. There should never be a rule that every web page must have a picture. Stock photos to illustrate generic concepts are nearly always unnecessary. Showing real people, places and activities at your council may well be fine, but not much else.
Every field you add reduces the chances of someone completing the form. If you don’t need to know something, don’t ask for it. You don’t need my postal address when I’m reporting some graffiti to you.
Multi-page forms are painful. They seem to go on forever and you never know what’s on the next page. They require some kind of navigation between the pages, which adds to the complication and the scope for error. Fit the whole form on one page, even if the page looks a bit long. People can scroll. You’re not designing for a bit of paper.
The one button every form needs is the Submit button, but it should probably be called Send or Save or Report It or something that makes sense in the context of the task. If you’ve got any other buttons like Reset (i.e. Delete everything I’ve just typed) ask whether you really need it.
And it’s worth asking whether the whole form is really needed at all.
Getting rid of all the clutter on your website doesn’t require a great deal of design insight or technical skill. But it needs a lot of discipline. So once a day just delete something that you can live without and you’ll be working towards a faster, cheaper, simpler website with much happier users.
Adrian Short works to get people the information they need, when they need it, in a way that they can understand.