Simple things are the most easily overlooked. Two examples: a magician taking a wand out of his pocket (see? so simple that maybe you’ve never thought about why it wasn’t on the table at the start), or the home page on www.fixmystreet.com.
The first thing FixMyStreet asks for is a location. That’s so simple most people don’t think about it; but it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, a lot of services like this would begin with a login form (“who are you?”) or a problem form (“what’s the problem you want to report?”). Well, we do it this way because we’ve learned from years of experience, experiment and, yes, mistakes.
We start off by giving you, the user, an easy problem (“where are you?”) that doesn’t offer any barrier to entry. Obviously, we’re very generous as to how you can describe that location (although that’s a different topic for another blog post). The point is we’re not asking for accuracy, since as soon as we have the location we will show you a map, on which you can almost literally pinpoint the position of your problem (for example, a pothole). Pretty much everyone can get through that first stage — and this is important if we want people to use the service.
How important? Well, we know that when building a site like FixMyStreet, it’s easy to forget that nobody in the world really needs to report a pothole. They want to, certainly, but they don’t need to. If we make it hard for them, if we make it annoying, or difficult, or intrusive, then they’ll simply give up. Not only does that pothole not get reported, but those users probably won’t bother to try to use FixMyStreet ever again.
So, before you know it, by keeping it simple at the start, we’ve got your journey under way — you’re “in”, the site’s already helping you. It’s showing you a map (a pretty map, actually) of where your problem is. Of course we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to use that map. You see other problems, already reported so maybe you’ll notice that your pothole is already there and we won’t have wasted any of your time making you tell us about it. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we now know which jurisdictions are responsible for the specific area, so the drop-down menu of categories you’re about to be invited to pick from will already be relevant for the council departments (for example) that your report will be going to.
And note that we still haven’t asked you who you are. We do need to know — we send your name and contact details to the council as part of your report — but you didn’t come to FixMyStreet to tell us who you are, you came first and foremost to report the problem. So we focus on the reporting, and when that is all done then, finally, we can do the identity checks.
Of course there’s a lot more to it than this, and it’s not just civic sites like ours that use such techniques (most modern e-commerce sites have realised the value of making it very easy to take your order before any other processing; many governmental websites have not). But we wanted to show you that if you want to build sites that people use, you should be as clever as a magician, and the secret to that is often keeping it simple — deceptively simple — on the outside.
Last month saw the launch of not one but two websites asking the public to report empty properties to the relevant council. First off the blocks was mySociety’s ReportEmptyHomes.com, commissioned by the Empty Homes Agency, followed shortly afterwards by EveryHomeCounts.info from a group of eight councils in Surrey and Hampshire. Since mySociety claims to want to show the public sector how to use the internet properly, I thought it might be interesting to compare the two sites, at least from a user’s perspective.
I’m going to imagine I was walking down, say, Fosters Lane in Knaphill, Surrey, and I noticed that the house on the corner next to the chip shop was in a state of disrepair.* I snapped a picture on my mobile phone, and I want to send it to the council to see if they can do something about it.
[*I ought to just add that this is entirely fictional. I’ve never been to Knaphill, I’ve no idea whether there’s a chippy on Fosters Lane, and even if there is, the house next to it probably belongs to a lovely couple. Please don’t go taking pictures of their house for the council.]
So, first up: EveryHomeCounts.info. Clicking the big red REPORTING AN EMPTY PROPERTY button takes me to a page of text telling me why the council might like people to report empty properties, although presumably if I’ve got as far as finding the website and clicking the big red button, I’m already convinced of the case. At the bottom of the text I’m invited to “click here” to report an empty property.
On the next page I’m asked for… a whole load of personal information. I want to tell you about an empty house; do I really need to declare my title, first name, surname, house name, house number, street, locality, town, county, postcode, country, telephone number, and email address before doing so? Well, as it turns out, no — they only insist on an email address (although the single letter “f” was accepted as a valid email address).
On to page four, and I’m finally asked for the address of the house. I suppose “house on the corner next to the chippy, Queens Road, Knaphill” would probably be enough for the council to identify it. But then — get this — they want me to tell them which borough council might be responsible for this address, so that the report can be sent to the right place! Unless I happen to live in that street, how would I know? Even if I could have an educated guess, it might be near a boundary, or just over a boundary… Leaving the field blank isn’t allowed, and there’s no option that says “I’m not sure, sorry” — I’m told in red ink that I must specify a council if I want to continue filing my report.
Finally, I reach a screen that says at the top, “Thank you. You have reached the end of this form. blah blah” The second paragraph says, “What will happen next? The council will process your form. You will receive an email blah blah.” So, I pat myself on the back, turn off the computer and go for a walk. Except that if I’d scrolled down the page, I would have seen “submit” button, along with the “review” and “cancel” buttons. My form hasn’t been submitted, and I’ve wasted half an hour filling in a form that’s been thrown away.
Now, what would have happened if I’d gone to ReportEmptyHomes.com instead?
The top of the front page asks me for a postcode, street name or area. I enter “Fosters Lane, Knaphill” and hit enter. This brings up an Ordnance Survey map with Fosters Lane in the middle of it, and I click on the offending property. The text on the page immediately changes and tells me that this problem falls in the area of Woking Borough Council, and I’m asked for a description of the property, a photo if I’ve got one to upload, my name, email and phone number.
Having filled in the information and clicked “submit”, I’m told to go off and check my emails, where I’ll find a confirmation link to click. This finalises the report.
So, how do the two sites compare? The mySociety site certainly gets the user through the process quicker, and offers maps and photos to boot. It helps the user greatly by taking responsibility for finding the right council, and does so for the whole country too, not just for a couple of counties in the south. On the down side, one could question why it’s so important to verify the user’s email address before filing the report; waiting for a confirmation link by email adds an extra hurdle which will probably trip at least some users, so why do it?
Also, EveryHomeCounts.info isn’t just for filing reports about empty homes; it contains information on buying, selling, owning and letting them too, providing ways for local people to perhaps make use of empty properties without enlisting the council’s help at all, which can only be a good thing.
To be fair, the councils concerned should be applauded for taking the initiative to launch this service, and I hope it proves to be a worthwhile use of council tax money. It’s great to see public bodies using the internet in innovative ways to try to make concrete improvements in people’s immediate environment. It appears though that mySociety have shown that it can be done better, and for the whole country, and probably more cheaply to boot.