A housing association’s web site should be central to its communications strategy. It provides a tool for communications and transactions, as well as a ‘shop window’ for the organisation. It is therefore crucial that housing providers follow best practice when designing and developing their web sites. An approach that reflects, re-evaluates and responds to excellent web experiences in the public and private sectors can result in a much improved online offering.
While web site development and maintenance present a number of challenges, there are some simple rules that provide a framework for best practice and make the outcome of managing content on a web site cost effective for the housing provider while providing a high-quality service to its tenants.
Finding your way
As a rule, people visit their housing provider’s web site for a purpose; they do not want to spend time browsing but want to carry out a transaction or find a specific piece of information. People are impatient and if the necessary information can’t be easily found, they are likely to turn straight to the ‘contact us’ page and telephone. So, put links to the most-used services on the home page so that they can be completed quickly, using clear descriptions such as ‘Click here to pay your rent’ for added ease of use.
But how can the navigation of a site be measured, and how do we know that people are finding what they’re looking for? Continuous testing is the key to user insight. Web analytics packages, which look at user traffic and test user journeys, enable housing providers to answer some important questions, such as whether users are visiting the expected web pages or taking the anticipated routes through the site. Web analysis reports will show the way people navigate around the web site, allowing you to adapt and update the site according to customer needs.
Keeping it real
A web site needs to be updated regularly, evolving and improving as an on-going project. However, devolved content contribution (i.e. different people updating specific areas of the site) means that it can be difficult to maintain consistency and best practice; robust parameters should determine how, when and who updates the web site. Web content management (WCM) systems can also ensure consistency by defining the types of content that specific contributors need to add to a page. This guarantees that all employees understand what is expected when updating and maintaining the web site.
Connecting with the people
One of the biggest challenges for housing providers is striking the right balance between site accessibility and performance. From a communications perspective, the web site needs to present a number of complex issues and processes; everything from reporting damage to updates on major new builds. A web site demands that information is presented in a concise manner that is clear and easy to understand. So while it is necessary to provide lots of information on some issues, this can be broken down into sections and subsections, with links to download larger documents. Keep the text free from jargon and be creative when displaying a process or procedure; use video, audio and interactive help where appropriate to guide the user around the site.
The Web 2.0 generation
With the role of housing web sites constantly evolving and the needs of tenants changing, the management and maintenance of the web sites will remain a priority. New WCM technologies, combined with widespread use of broadband internet will mean an even greater role for the housing provider’s site to provide local information and support key services and citizen transactions.
To conclude, our suggested top tips for best practice:
- Place the tenant at the centre;
- Ensure the most-used services are accessible from the home page;
- Test continuously, and act on the results;
- Use dynamic workflow processes for consistency and improved efficiencies;
- Don’t use jargon;
- Use Web 2.0 applications to promote engagement;
- Provide an enhanced tenant account.
Robert McCarthy is managing director of GOSS Interactive.