All organisations, especially those in the housing sector, need to be nimble in times of crisis. That’s never been more apparent than since the start of this year. When people want to engage with housing services, their first port of call is usually the website. It’s the same for other critical services too. When users visit government or NHS websites, spending time admiring fancy graphics is usually pretty low on their list of priorities; they need a site that’s easy to navigate and allows them to quickly access the information they need. Housing providers are no exception to that need, and it’s more important than ever to get it right.
With this in mind, the first thing organisations need to think about is the structure and presentation of their homepage, which needs to feature the most up-to-date and popular content. The website itself needs to be robust and well-supported to withstand a crisis and users need to be able to follow a clear roadmap that helps them locate information. Nothing good ever comes from being underprepared. So let’s run through four of the most important things housing providers need to consider when designing websites, and how they can cope in times of crisis when traffic is sure to surge.
Most housing providers’ websites act as hubs of information, allowing tenants and other interested parties to find essential advice, news and data, and to access support. The last thing you want is for the site to be slow or unresponsive, even during ‘normal’ times. The platform you use needs to provide a high degree of resilience, scalability and security to cope with heavy demands and unexpected peaks. This means selecting a hosting provider with a track record of enabling sites to continue to run under extreme pressure.
Website crashes and slow loading pages create a sense of insecurity among users, so it’s much better to have a website that fails rarely and gracefully than one that looks pretty.
Not all hosting is created equal. If things go wrong, you want the reassurance that your hosting provider has sound plans to handle any outages. It’s important that housing providers choose partners that offer monitoring and alerting services, as well as out-of-hours contacts and 24/7 emergency support. Without a holistic service, you risk leaving yourself exposed, with gaps in monitoring which could result in service users’ needs being left unmet.
There’s an increasing climate of collaboration and fully accessible support when it comes to hosting providers, so don’t settle for one which neglects to provide you with full technical support. Aim to work with teams that have expertise in crises and building resilience.
Content design is fundamental to the effectiveness of all public-facing websites.
The key here is not to overcomplicate the homepage or website structure. The more pages you have, the more complicated your website will be. If you look at the NHS England or Gov.uk website right now, you are likely to see a simplified homepage design and large banners in bold colours, knowing that people will be seeking immediate and vital information on the coronavirus.
These kinds of changes can be made retrospectively but, in an ideal world, you should always design your website as if you are going to be using it during a disaster.
And, although it seems pretty obvious, it’s important to remember that sites also need to be optimised for mobile users. People expect to be able to access high-quality information and services anytime, anywhere on any device, especially in times of crisis.
Content publishing models
When you need to get information onto your site quickly, the last thing you want to be doing is creating a new process. The current need for timely information has put the responsiveness of organisations under the microscope and highlighted how slow some have been to get off the mark. Changes in government policy and narrative are happening all the time, sometimes from hour to hour, and keeping up with that is vital.
You might be confident that your website is resilient and robust enough to deal with large traffic spikes, but if the information it contains isn’t up to date, you will inevitably run into problems.
So it’s also important that housing providers have well-established and efficient content approval processes; assigning team members according to their skills and expertise makes it much easier to get vital information to users.
Whether you experience a small spike in traffic or a large surge, it’s important to know that you can cope and that you are fully supported during times that will challenge your website’s capabilities. Today, the global and public health situation is constantly changing. You never know which government announcement, or change in circumstances, could apply to your organisation or the people you support.
Beyond the pandemic, there aren’t always warning signs that a surge in traffic is coming. The best defence is to run your website the right way all the time, and make sure it’s updated, secure, optimised and backed up regularly, then you’ll be prepared when the unexpected does happen.
Alex Jackson is the head of govpress at DXW.