Worst practice: 10 ways that Sutton Council’s website (still) drives me nuts

UPDATE 1 March 2010: Let’s see how the site’s doing seven months after I originally published this article.

Someone famous once said that the true definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to be different. Well I keep going back to the Sutton Council website and nine months after launch it’s still not any better. Arguably it’s worse.

Wibble.

In no particular order:

1. No redirect from sutton.gov.uk to www.sutton.gov.uk

That’s one small step for the DNS admin, one large dollop of timewasting annoyance for dozens of users every day.

Update 1 March 2010: This is still a problem. I thought it had been fixed but it was just a consequence of me using a smarter browser (Chrome) than previously.

2. Enormously bloated top navbar.

sutton council navbar

So useful that they let you hide it (now). Does that tell you something?

Update 1 March 2010: This bloated, visually heavy, space-invading top nav is still there. It’s grown a few new buttons, too.

3. No distinct visited link colours

Sutton Council no visited link colours

Want to know which links you’ve already clicked? Tough. Perhaps the designers were off for Usability 101. So irritating that I wrote a Greasemonkey script to fix it. (Who says users never want to customise their council’s website?)

Update 1 March 2010: We still don’t get distinct colours for visited links. I’m still relying on my Greasemonkey script to provide this absolutely basic usability feature.

4. Abysmal RSS implementation

No autodiscovery. Homepage RSS icons link to a help page rather than the feeds themselves. On the help page even the enormous RSS icon isn’t a feed link either, just a pretty picture. And once you finally manage to subscribe, you have the exquisite pleasure of renaming “Latest press releases RSS feed” to “Sutton Council news” and “Sutton Council” to “Sutton Council jobs” in your feed reader. All of which makes me think that none of this was designed by someone who’s ever used RSS, let alone tested properly. Please fix it before one of us dies.

Update 1 March 2010: Sutton’s RSS feeds have improved but there’s still plenty of work to do. Good news: The feeds have been renamed with sensible names so users won’t have to rename them themselves in their feed readers. There are three RSS icons on the home page, two of which link directly to feeds (good) and one that links to another web page (very bad). There’s still no autodiscovery and the feed for Closed Consultations is completely broken. While I didn’t mention it in the original article, the major missed opportunity here is to provide full text feeds. RSS is a way of delivering your content to other applications so that people can read it conveniently, not a clever way to generate traffic back to your website which pretty much undermines the entire purpose of the exercise.

5. Distracting, patronising, juvenile stock photos

If the current homepage is to be believed, Sutton is the kind of place where people are ecstatic to have TWO ice creams, wear flowers in their hair and grow beards. This isn’t cool, it’s the dad dance of civic web design. How about letting the real content speak for itself without having to compete with this junk?

Update 1 March 2010: As summer passed, so did two-ice-cream girl and the hippy couple. Their places have been taken by different, non-contextual, distracting stock pictures. You do not have to fill every pixel on the page with stuff. Will the summer crew be back this year?

6. The clock/calendar anti-pattern

Sutton Council clock/calendar

Put the entirely useless current time and date where the content date should go, then type the content date into the story titles. Is this really a content management system or is someone just bashing it out with FrontPage? (Extra bonus points will be awarded to any designer that can find the time/date on the screen of every user’s computer. Clue: It’s not in the browser.)

Update 1 March 2010: The clock/calendar is still with is and just as damaging to users’ understanding of the true age of the content as ever. Seriously, just delete it.

7. Search form uses POST rather than GET

Want to bookmark or link to a page of search results? No can do. Some basic instruction in the meaning and usage of HTTP methods required. Failing that, just copy every other search form on the entire web.

Update 1 March 2010: No progress here. You still can’t bookmark or link to search results pages. And it only takes changing “POST” to “GET” in a couple of lines of code to fix it, too.

8. No permalinks

Non-permalinks

1999 called — they want their URLs back. I wonder whether I’ll have time to fix all my inbound deep links and bookmarks to the site before they change them. Again. Permalinks are cool. Two-ice-cream girl take note.

Update 1 March 2010: Still no permalinks. We are still stuck in the link stability dark ages. How the CMS vendor can get away with this I have absolutely no idea, although it’s amusing to note that they don’t have permalinks on their own website either. Perhaps they should buy a decent CMS. :)

9. Don’t Contact Us

It’s there, but can you find it? Enjoy the multi-step form when you do. Wizards are magic!

Update 1 March 2010: The phone number is as small and hidden as ever and the multi-step contact form is just as forbidding. How about just publishing a general contact email address?

10. Subscribe to this page

Except it doesn’t work. Never has. Makes no sense. A small prize is offered to anyone that can explain clearly 1) What it’s supposed to do and 2) How you use it. I’m just a web designer and not a very bright one at that. Goes right over my head. (Tip: There’s already a general subscription mechanism for web content called RSS.)

Update 1 March 2010: The Subscribe to this Page feature is still there and doesn’t seem any different. I’ve still got no idea what it’s supposed to do or how it’s supposed to work. And RSS is still by far the best way to provide a subscription mechanism to just about anything.

11. £200K and rising

I had to help pay for it too. Now that really hurts. Got a spare £200K? You can get a site like this for your council too.

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12 comments

  1. I agree with much of this but I think perhaps you’re being a little harsh in a couple of areas which to me are fairly subjective:

    ‘Enormously bloated top navbar’
    I would actually find it very useful, as it puts key services and site search at the uppermost level of the site. I would hate it if I couldn’t hide it, but I can; though I do think it should be clearer *how* to hide it.

    ‘No visited link colours’
    An underline is much more of a visual hint than different colours, which can be problematic for different types of vision. Combining the two would be even better of course, but I think of the two they’ve made the right choice.

    ‘Distracting, patronising, juvenile stock photos’
    I don’t believe those are stock photos at all ( http://is.gd/26xwG ), but real photos of real people in Sutton. I don’t have a problem with that: it makes it relevant to Sutton folk.

    I also don’t have much issue with the cost: £200k actually doesn’t sound too bad for a citizens-facing local authority website. Birmingham is spending upwards of 2.8m on theirs ( http://is.gd/26xMk ); granted it’s a much bigger authority, but even so.

    But the rest I agree with, and I can’t see why they should be too hard to fix. But of course they may already be built into the project plan to be addressed at some point.

  2. Navbar: How many other sites allow you to hide major elements? The fact that they belatedly enabled this feature says that the bar is in many contexts a problem. You’re right that most people won’t realise that the bar can be hidden; fewer will actually bother. The solution is to put these elements (or at least, those that are really necessary) in a place that they’re useful but not intrusive. It needs a redesign, not a sticking plaster.

    Visited link colours: The problem is that *visited* links aren’t different from unvisited ones, hence confusing people about which pages they’ve already seen. Very, very basic usability stuff.

    Stock photos: You’re right, I assume those are photos of “real” people around Sutton. But they’re not relevant to anything and they’re competing with real content images that relate to news stories and other items. It’s visual clutter that detracts from the overall aesthetic and the usability of the content. How many “decorative” photos can you find on BBC News homepage? A pic of people hanging out in the canteen, perhaps? Incidentally, the rest of the site is awash with stock library pictures that frankly do very little for it at all.

    Cost: £200K might be reasonable for a good site but this is dreadfully amateurish. Nor is it an old “legacy” site about to be replaced. It’s brand new. If it were done on the cheap perhaps I’d be a bit more relaxed about it. At that price I’d expect skilled designers to put a lot of work in on the main template. There’s very little skill there at all. In many respects it’s worse than the site it replaced.

  3. re: #6 the clock on the page

    Hang on though, if I was on holiday and wanted to know what time it was in Sutton, or if I was an ex-resident living in Hong Kong then surely that’d be a nice thing, see the time back in the smoke?

    But hang on, no! the clock is a Javascript clock and shows me the time on MY machine ( in the wrong time zone, and 7 minutes out – as it happens ).

    One of many pointless bells which have clearly impressed the inept and unqualified.

  4. >Distracting, patronising, juvenile stock photos

    The stock photos one is interesting.

    For the web you don’t actually need especially high quality photos of course, so they could actually used crowdsourced local photos, but another issue is that the freelance photogs profession is bleeding to death along with writers. They are an easy target for cost cutting. A difficult one to balance.

    One reason I never submit photos for local authority (or BBC) competitions is that a free license is usually a condition of submission.

    Having done work on several council websites, and sat in rooms next to people who have to maintain them while managing other projects, navigation is always the biggest challenge due to the sheer variety of services and data requiring to be presented.

  5. I still maintain it’s not too bad. This is the new Birmingham one, costing almost £3m: http://www.birmingham.gov.uk

  6. nice work dude, thanks for share…
    Worst practice: 10 ways that Sutton Council’s website (still) drives me nuts Adrian Short

  7. I’d love to experience all these design features you write about but when I open the homepage it is inaccessible behind a Flikr slideshow which I can’t close and a SOCITM dialog asking for my comments on the site which I can’t access!