Search or browse?

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Search or browse?

This evening I checked out the new Lancashire County Council website which has adopted a ‘Google’ style home page – just a search box and little other navigation. Unless of course you go to the ‘classic view’, which is a link on the relatively discreet navigation bar at the top (highlighted with blue elipse below).

Lancashire County Council - new home page

Although it’s a bold move and I applaud any Council willing to step away from the category style navigation enforced by the Local Government Navigation List (LGNL) for many years, I am really not sure this is a good decision. I think Lancashire could find that a significant number of their users find the site much harder to use. I may well be wrong, but  it will be very interesting to find out what user testing results they get and what their website analytics show. But I have a hunch based on my experience of moderating user tests and what I’ve learnt about how different users behave.

When I’ve carried out user testing I’ve often found that participants are fairly evenly split between ‘expert’ users  who like to search for information using a search engine and ‘novice’ users, who are less confident and like to browse and click on links. Some people just happen to feel more comfortable when they have some hints about what to click on. Even better if the links they can click on are relevant to their goals. In comparison to Lancashire’s site, the Westminster site does place popular tasks under the search box.

Google has a distinct role – as a search engine. Whilst a County Council website might contain a considerable amount of diverse information and transactional services, citizens have some clear goals. Popular tasks include renewing a library book, contacting the Council, applying for a blue badge, finding schools information etc. For your novice users, placing top tasks on the home page can help users get straight to the relevant place.

To put the site to the test I carried out a search that relates to a typical user task on a County Council website. My first search “library renewals” found no results. No results? Really no results?

Lancashire - search results

Hmm, so I tried another. ‘Apply for a Blue Badge’. This time the results were more promising, but it does prove that the search will have to be  top notch for those users who are comfortable using search. For those users who are not comfortable with search, I do hope they figure out what the ‘classic view’ is.

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8 Comments so far

Sarah Lay » Blog Archive » Search-centric vs the signpostPosted on11:09 am - Aug 19, 2009

[…] Michele Ide-Smith – search or browse […]

Stumbled across today « Julia's BlogPosted on8:07 pm - Aug 25, 2009

[…] navigation with a google style front page. She links to Carl Haggerty, Stuart Harrison and Michele Ide-Smith who have written equally thoughtful posts about the same […]

John FoxPosted on2:15 pm - Aug 28, 2009

I think Lancashire’s implementation works better than Westminster’s, though I agree the search box needs to be more dominant.

Two strengths on Lancashire’s site for me are the prominent switch to Classic view (which is not obvious on Westminster’s site) and the strong single-image design of the site’s homepage to support council campaigns.

Provided they can maintain the freshness of the design by further campaign images, I think it’s a potential winner.

But as ever, its all very well having a Google style homepage. If you don’t get the fundamentals behind it right then its all rather academic. Reliance on the search means that users must be able to find what they’re looking for first time (or second at a push).

I gave up on the new model pretty quickly, switching to Classic view for an altogether better user experience.

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on6:08 pm - Aug 28, 2009

Hi John,

I have to say, as many others have, that the proof will be in the pudding with this one. If Lancashire’s users find the site easy to use and helps them meet their goals, then we can safely say it’s a success. Usability evaluation and analysis of statistics and customer feedback are really the only sure fire ways to find out if it works, for Lancashire’s users. We, after all, are expert users!


Headstar E-Government Blog » Blog Archive » Lancashire Latest To Build Home Page Around Search BoxPosted on2:29 pm - Sep 4, 2009

[…] has appeared on a blog run by Cambridgeshire County Council web manager Michele Ide-Smith ( ), who – writing in a strictly personal capacity, and not representing the views of her employer […]

Rob van TolPosted on12:23 pm - Sep 8, 2009

Hi Michele

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I should declare I have a vested interest: I’m a usability consultant with a special interest in the public sector (from my own time in Local Government website management). So I would say this: Test with the user.

Like you I applaud council’s slipping away from the (largely untested) straight jacket of the LGNL but am concerned that the investment in new sites with novel solutions or web 2.0 features are driven by either the personal enthusiasm of the web team or the the new features of the CMS.

Given the life span of Council sites, and the limited opportunities to spend significant amounts on them, this seems at best a great shame, and at worst, jeopardising public money.



Rob van TolPosted on12:30 pm - Sep 8, 2009

Oh, and I meant to say (duh!) that one of the problems with the search approach is the difficulties of translating normal English into Local Government speak and vice versa. If you don’t know what HMO Licensing is, you’re a bit stuck. Or real people get “parking tickets” but local government issues Penalty Charge Notices – or PCNs even. Just checked that one on Birmingham’s new website: fail!

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on2:10 pm - Sep 8, 2009

Hi Rob,

Thanks for the comment. I had a brief look at the Birmingham home page today, but haven’t ventured into the site yet. From a high level view of the home page it seems that user tasks and flow have not been given much consideration. We are currently conducting user research for our website, which is in drastic need of an overhaul, and am acutely aware of the type of goals our users have. Birmingham City’s users will of course be different, but not that different.


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