There have been a couple of revamps of council websites recently which are far more than a coat of fresh CSS. Westminster and Lancashire have gone all Googly and made their primary (as in the one they push at visitors) navigation a search engine.

This is a big shift away from the standard for local government websites which generally have a signposted navigation system. Some are still sticking with recommended (not necessarily by users) categorisation schemes under which services are listed while others have moved forward with a more usable (although in many cases still not perfect) task-orinetated navigation.

Lancashire have gone full on in being search-centric. The first page you come to is basically a big advert and a search box. In my opinion it is visually appealing and probably suits internal pressures to continue using the web channel to broadcast key messages.

On the face of it search-centric makes sense to me. Across the internets search is the main way of finding what you are looking for. Most users are comfortable with it. They like the no nonsense approach of the clean Google page.  But is it right for local government? Well, perhaps not in isolation.

Westminster have a mixed approach. The search is the most prominant navigation option on the homepage but also has the task-orientated listings underneath. Lancashire offer the option of a ‘standard view’ homepage which returns to a catagorisation style scheme.

They both seem to want to drive their visitors toward using the search though. And I can see how that would seem like a good idea – like I say, it does make some sense to me. We know from behaviour in the wider online space people like search and, let’s face it, sticking a search box on your homepage is far easier than designing a classification that tries to please everyone and then cramming your content into it (whether you’re a local gov website or not).

But I wonder if this is what the visitors of these particular sites, and perhaps local government sites in general, want?

Google do search well (and apparently there are some other search engines which can have a good go as well) so if I wanted to search wouldn’t I use Google and jump straight into the deep end of the website at the page I was interested in? Would I come to the homepage at all?

If I had come to the homepage is a search what I want to see? Or do I want to see those top tasks? I know what my personal preference is but what of the ‘real’ visitors? How much usability testing has been carried out here?

I think even if my preference was for search I would only be that way inclined if the search actually works, and works well, for every single thing I want on that site. It is why Google is thriving where so many search engines withered on the vine. From my initial playing around yesterday with Lancashire I was surprised to find not all the ‘top services’ (picked from our most commonly requested services) yeilded no results. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Yeah, took me a minute to think that one through too. Which makes the usability testing question raise it’s hand again.

A couple of other things struck me – while Westminster put their search box up front and centre on their homepage with other messages / navigation below Lancashire have got their search box toward the bottom on the left. It’s fairly small as well given the size of the advertising image. It doesn’t scream ‘search here’ to me. I’ve no problem admitting that the first time I opened the page I was confused about how to get into the site. It seems even more lost if you close the help box. But that’s just my opinion.

I don’t think an answer about what is best search or signpost can be found in looking only at these two sites especially when they are so shiny and new. It’s great that council’s are moving forward, innovating and looking at new and hopefully better ways to present their online information. I really hope they made the decisions about these designs with lots of input from visitors and usability testing. I’m really interested to see what comes next in local government online.

* I’m slow on the draw today thanks so there have been a flurry of other great posts about this: