Friday, June 21, 2024

Why user testing is important for local council websites

Ever since we started documenting our journey here at Camden webteam, we have been inundated with emails asking about our web strategy and experience redesigning our site. One of the topics that always seem to come up is how we’ve conducted our user-led approach in designing the site.

By Liz Azyan , in Government , at July 25, 2011 Tags: , , ,

We were prompted to write this special piece together when @danslee from Walsall Council asked us why we think user research and user testing was important to us while redesigning our site. Given the extraordinary insightful journey we went through, we wanted to pull our thoughts together and recapture the essence of our website redesign project.

The dumbest mistake is viewing design as something you do at the end of the process to ‘tidy up’ the mess, as opposed to understanding it’s a ‘day one’ issue and part of everything.
– Tom Peters (issue Journal of Business and Design, Vol 6, No. 1)

Customer insight and user testing

When we were going through our website redesign, we found the user research and testing to be one of the most useful and powerful tool for redesign. We got to know our users and learn what matters to them when using our site. It forced us to look beyond our own experiences, skills and knowledge and put users at the heart of our design.

We did several types of user research and user testing, allowing us to get a complete customer insight into what makes a good council website for residents of Camden. They included usability testing, focus groups, usability lab studies, A/B testings, contextual enquiries, personas and eyetracking.

Really getting to know our users

We also visited users in their homes to understand what sort of equipment they used to access the web and get a better picture of what their day-to-day life might look like. The user research and user testing were crucial in shaping a council website that suited our users’ needs instead of just complying with corporate demands. We made it our objective that this website was ‘to serve and not to be served to’ the public.

Result of user research and user testing

The result from our user research and user testing demonstrates how the user research and usability testing has helped us when we were in the process of redesigning our website.  It also resulted in a positive response from the local government community.

Here are some of the reasons why you should seriously consider doing user testing before launching your new council website

Alasdair Mangham – Head of Information Systems at London Borough of Camden

Alasdair ManghamCan you afford not to user test is the question that should be asked. Is there really any justification for spending thousands of pounds of public money on a website and then to be left wondering why nobody is using it?

Channel shift and web usability

Council’s need to achieve channel shift to online to meet savings targets and users want a service that they can use easily.

“Usability is the key to ensuring that you are providing people with a channel that they will choose to use and that is the key to achieving channel shift.”

Is analytics enough?

It is true that you can design a new website from a good understanding of analytics but that presupposes users can do what they need on your existing site. Analytics is like a crying baby. It tells you that something’s wrong but it can’t tell you what. And this is where usability testing comes in.

The significant problems we have cannot be solved with the thinking used to create them.
– Albert Einstein

Here are some valuable points from Alasdair on what you can do to avoid a website relaunch disaster: –

  1. Start early – It is important to start the user testing process as early as possible in the redesign. This can be done by using paper prototypes or wireframes, so with only minimal technology. It also does not need to be expensive.  Most large councils have a workforce of several thousand and small council’s workforce will still have several hundred employees.
  2. Make use of the resources that are easily available – In most cases the council workforce will also be council residents and they are an ideal group to get half a dozen users for your user testing. So for very little investment it is possible to prevent mistakes that cost thousands of pounds to fix and there is no better return on Investment than that.

John Weller –  Camden webteam

John Weller“It’s easy to presume what you’re building is useful, but user testing often proves otherwise.”

Michael Fredman –  Camden webteam

“User testing and user research can provide a first hand understanding of how people a) use and b) view the site you are working on, and this is invaluable because it grounds what is being done in the real world.”

The value of running and moderating user testing sessions

  1. When running or moderating user testing sessions I am always struck by how much insight is provided. People come to the site with fewer preconceptions than those deeply involved in the site’s development and can point out in their approach things you wouldn’t have noticed or would have taken for granted.
  2. Another value of user research is that it gives you concrete examples of how people are affected by the design of a site which remain with you, because they are human examples – not textbook or guideline based.

A world of difference…

Michael FredmanThere is a world of difference between wanting to meet accessibility and usability guidelines because you know that abstractly it is a good thing, and wanting to implement them because you have gone out and met a diverse range of users and seen the problems they have with web interfaces, and the frustration and difficulty that can be caused from poor or thoughtless design.

Personally, I recall going out to meet with a group of older people from the local community and discussing their opinions and experiences of the web. I also remember the first time I witnessed a visually impaired person use a browser to navigate a website; these experiences were affecting and gave me a clear understanding of potential problems. Having those experiences has encouraged me to always try to bear them in mind when I am approaching a project.

Michael F.

Martin Black – London Borough of Camden Web Manager

User testing on the cheap!

Usability testing needn’t be expensive and you don’t always need an external company to do it for you.  Easy to use, cheap tools include:

Martin Black

  • Google Analytics (free!) or similar – identify what people are doing on your website (essential resource: Avinash Kaushik’s books and blog: )
  • Online surveys / face to face interviews (free!) – identify why people are doing things on your website and what problems they might be having (resource: Gerry McGovern’s book on Top Task Management:
  • User testing (free!) – identify what problems users are having with your website (essential resource: Steve Krug’s ‘Rocket Surgery Made Easy‘:
  • Stats from your customer services (free!) – what are users asking for? What can’t they find?
  • Internal site search stats – what are the top keywords? What are people after?


Liz AzyanWe strongly recommend that any council redesigning their website takes time to thoroughly understand their customers by using research and testing. It’s a great way to gain support from the public,  insight and to save money in the long run, as you can deliver services based on what users needs and their top tasks.

User testing allows you to see whether or not a feature of the website is actually useable or facilitates the completion of tasks.  And that’s what a council website needs to deliver – the ability for a customer to complete a task that they came to the website to do. Be it paying council tax, ordering a new recycling bin or simply searching for wedding venues within the borough.

– Liz Azyan (Camden webteam)

And remember….

“For each dollar a company invests in developing the usability of a product, the company receives $10-$100 in benefits and wins customer satisfaction and continued business. Furthermore, industry data shows that for each dollar spent to fix a problem during product design, $10 are spent to fix the same problem in product development, and $100 or more are spent to fix the same problem after product release.”
– Claire Marie Karat, “A business case approach to usability cost justification.” In, R. Bias and D. Mayhew, Eds. Cost-Justifying Usability, Academic Press, NY, 1994.

Hope this was useful!

Camden webteam


  • Liz,

    Thanks for this exceptional account of the Camden journey, and the photos are cool too !

    Surely you are candidates to speak at the Solace Summit in Edinburgh this October and explain this to the Chief Executives ?


    • Hi Alex,

      Sorry for the late reply. Been very busy at Camden lately. We’re happy to speak at the Solace Summit if you feel we should. How do we go about arranging it?

      Let me know.


  • An excellent and useful tool – we are looking at our Council website in North Dorset and the use of Social Media, I feel the requirements of the residents in this area will be very different to the one in Camden, and naturally the age range is a significant consideration.