12 things you didn’t know about your police website visitors

In the last 2 years we have been passionate about designing and maintaining a public service site that serves user goals quickly and easily. Here are some truths we learned along the way:

1. Service users don’t browse

Users don’t come to police websites because they are bored or want to see what the police are up to. A recent survey by Ipsos shows only 11% of the British public are concerned about crime. So why would someone visit a police website? Because they have a goal in mind: they need to do something. The public expect the police to be there when they need us. The implication is that our website must be easy to navigate and not require familiarity.

2. Keywords rule

Users are busy people, just like us. They don’t have time to read whole pages of text, or click on every menu option until they find what they want… Instead, they skim read and scan the copy for keywords, their interpretation of the goal they want to achieve. This could be “assault”, “complaint”, “fraud” and so on. Some users may not even come to the site first- 50% of our users enter their keywords into Google followed by a variation of “Avon and Somerset Police” to find what they want. This is why our page titles and navigation labels are in plain English and not police jargon. When we built our site, the traditional approach when providing information on Road Traffic Collisions (RTCs) would have been to use the word “collisions” in the title. That is not a word the public would have in mind when visiting the site and as such our user testing demonstrated a poor success rate. Changing the word to “accident” transformed the results with a significantly higher goal completion success rate. The police wouldn’t normally use this word as it can imply no-one is at fault, and we had to make a difficult choice. As content writers we need to write for our audience and ditch the jargon. Unless we put users first, the end result will be frustration and increased calls to our 101 line.

3. Banners are dead

Website banners are ineffective, no matter how exciting the colours or animation. Recent research by IAB found that “Banners have to be served 1,250 times before someone clicks on one.” Eye tracking tests indicate people are conditioned to ignore them because:

a)  banners are unlikely to be what they are looking for

b)  banners mean advertising, interrupting the user from what they are trying to achieve.

Thinking mobile first, banners waste valuable interface space on a small screen.

4. Users don’t care how great you think you are

We call this vanity publishing: content which is clearly driven by the need for organisational self-promotion and is not aligned to a user goal. Vanity publishing adds clutter to the site and receives very little attention if any. It is something we work very hard to stamp out by challenging requests that have no basis for user demand.

5. Apps are not the answer

Apps are great. A mini website with your favourite features, fast and sleek. But apps only work if users want them and use them on a regular basis. In the public sector space, apps tend to be a waste of money as gov.uk have demonstrated. The nature of our business is that users are often “first time” customers. If being served requires an app, we are adding an additional obstacle to the user on-line journey, driving them to the easier option of calling us on 101. Our focus is on delivering an optimised web experience using open standards. This means there are no barriers to entry by having to install a local app from an app store and means the services are available to all platforms with minimal maintenance.

6. Mobile first

Our web analytics indicate more than half our website visitors are using a handheld device to view our site. Shopping sites have paved the way and set high standards when it comes to mobile experience. If our sites are hard work users are rapidly turned off and will leave within seconds, ultimately resulting in them calling our call centre. We work on the “mobile first” principle ensuring there is no compromise of experience or reduced functionality no matter what the device. You will see our site works in a responsive way and the layout of content and interface elements change dynamically, adapting to the screen size. To test if a site is optimised, try opening the homepage on a desktop computer and resize your browser, slowly reducing the width and height of the page to see this in action.

7. Seamless Transactions

Possibly through a lack of awareness and previous bad experience, the public do not generally consider a digital first approach for public sector transactional services. We found in a recent survey that whilst a large percentage of people who contacted us on the 101 phone-line were aware of our website, they didn’t consider trying it first. The majority of those that did however had a really positive experience. There is a lot more work to do to increase public awareness of police services online at a national scale.

8. In-site search is dying

Most people come via Google search directly to the home page or to a landing page matching the keywords they typed in the search engine. Only around 2.5% of our site visitors use our in-site search engine. However, site search can still give useful insights. We analyse site search logs to identify any areas where we may have labelled content incorrectly or identify emerging demand trends for topics we are not currently catering for.

9. A picture is a thousand words

Literally. When a user if greeted by an image, their brain needs to look at the image and process what it means, in relation to the context around it. This slows the user down and gets in the way of them achieving their goal, which is to quickly scan through text. We avoid using images on the site outside the news and feature pages. Images add little value to pages where people want to achieve a goal and too many images can be confusing. If a user is reading about what to do if they discover a burglary, they don’t need to see a picture of an arm reaching in through a window. Images can slow the site down and take up real estate on small screens. Finally, beware of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures.

10. The 3 click rule is a myth

For a few years general web wisdom dictated that a user should not have to click more than three times to reach their goal. Things change fast on the web and studies say what matters is the user being confident they are on the correct path to their goal. We saw this working in our user testing where people were drilling down through pages in a matter of seconds and achieving their goal quickly and easily. The number of clicks didn’t matter.

11. Serve first, tell later

As an organisation we want to help the public and we want to give them crime prevention advice and educate them on how to keep safe. However, when we analyse the paths users take when navigating our site, we can see that crime prevention is not a common goal for visiting us. We therefore need to focus on helping them achieve user goals first, instead of trying to interrupt them with our advice. If we were to interrupt someone who is about to walk into a police station to report a crime by insisting first that they listen to our advice to keep their house locked and windows shut whilst they are at work they would become frustrated. However, once they have reported their crime at the station, and as they are leaving, if someone were to stop them and say they are sorry to hear they have been a victim of burglary and offer them a leaflet on home security, they are more likely to be receptive. There is a great example of this in action by the Norwegian Cancer Society.

12. Users are not predictable robotic machines

As the world changes, so does user behaviour. It is important to continue to monitor user demand and behaviour to ensure user goals are still being met. We do this through web analytics, user testing and qualitative research. We also try to look at demand across the organisation and understand how the website can help serve that demand efficiently and effectively. We are currently reviewing our “computer crime” pages and have been researching what people are looking for on-line and the keywords they are using. Our current page is called Computer Crime. This was based on the user testing two years ago that would provide the most success for users to find information. However indications are that this has changed and we may need to review this page title and subsequent content. Without constant maintenance and evidence based review, the effectiveness of the site will drop and the end result is…you’ve guessed it, more calls to the call centre.