14 July 2012
Why do most council websites look the same on Monday morning as they do on Saturday night? There might be a few small changes from one day to the next but the way digital public services are presented tends to be similar from one hour, one day and one week to the next.
The general concept of web publishing in councils hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years. The dominant model is the content management system (CMS). People write pages which are published to particular parts of the website where they stay until they’re manually changed or taken down. While some information is best published this way, by treating the web as a glorified book you overlook the main benefit of using a computer-driven publishing system: automation.
Recently, some web designers have been borrowing an idea called responsive architecture and adapting it to the web. Responsive architecture is a set of techniques for making buildings react to their changing environments. A building might change its appearance and even its shape depending on the weather. Internal partitions could be rearranged according to the time of day or usage patterns detected by sensors. Interior climate and energy usage can be finely tailored not just to the weather but to the activity of the building’s occupants.
Taking their cues from these architects, web designers are now building websites that fit themselves to the user’s computer, adapting them for optimal ease of use for everything from a small screen mobile phone up through tablets to conventional-sized desktop monitors and even very large screens. But this responsive web design idea can be applied far more broadly than simply detecting screen sizes. Unlike buildings, web designers have the advantage that websites are intrinsically soft.
A time-adaptive website would tailor itself according to the hour of the day, the day of the week and the week of the year. Councils are already good at running comms campaigns to reflect the changing seasons, special days throughout the year and one-off (sometimes unexpected) events. So take that human knowledge, combine it with a sophisticated analysis of council service usage patterns both online and offline and look for ways to generate and adapt web pages that are far more closely fitted to the precise context of a web visit than the current “one size fits all times” approach. Give more emphasis to work-related issues during the day and focus more on entertainment and leisure in the evenings, especially on weekends. Don’t display tables of service opening times, clearly show which are open at the current time and when they’ll next open or close. Out-of-hours information can automatically be brought forward when a service is closed. For every piece of information on your site, ask whether it needs to be adapted depending on whether it’s viewed at midnight rather than midday, on Wednesday rather than Saturday, or in January rather than June. If so, create the alternative content you need and automate the changes.
The “digital by default” approach to public services promises that they will be available 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Round-the-clock services are convenient for many people and essential for others. But just because something is always available doesn’t mean it should always be the same. Creating responsive digital public services means taking a deeper look at how people live their lives. This knowledge can be used to improve all council services, not just those online. Do it right and you’ll serve citizens in a way that’s always timely and feels effortlessly natural.
This article appeared first in Local Government Chronicle.
Adrian Short works to get people the information they need, when they need it, in a way that they can understand.