A major part of the digital inclusion agenda has – rightly – been focused on the need to equip social housing tenants with digital skills. The figure that is often cited is that almost half the adult population in the UK who do not use the internet live in social housing and this proved to be a significant spur for many registered social landlords.
It is recognised that beyond the financial savings for housing associations (more people paying rent online, reporting repairs online etc.) there is also a wider benefit of ensuring tenants have better IT skills when applying for work; improving IT skills for those in work as well as financial benefits for tenants saving more money by purchasing goods and services online. Volunteering opportunities that arise from digital inclusion – particularly through the Digital Champions initiative – have also shown to be an excellent progression into paid employment for many tenants.
Outside of the skills agenda, there are also lessons to be learned for the sector about encouraging digital means and optimising the digital experience of customers. If more and more people are going to bypass traditional contact centres in favour of self-reporting issues online or via web chat with an advisor, then those electronic means have to be as easy, as simple and as straightforward as traditional means – if not more so.
A key part of encouraging digital means is reacting to changes in user behaviour. The biggest change of all is that according to the most recent Ofcom Communications Market Report, smartphones are now the number one device of UK internet users; that we’re using smartphones for around two hours a day and that the rollout of 4G is helping to change the way we shop, bank and communicate.
Furthermore, research undertaken by Lesniak Swann (a firm specialising in integrated marketing communications) for a social housing organisation showed that in the six months to April 2014, one social housing provider had seen mobile web traffic increase from 26% to 35%, and others have seen at least a 10% increase in mobile traffic. Their general monitoring of the mobile traffic to their other social housing clients revealed a significant increase in mobile web traffic.
What is a mobile optimised website?
Mobile optimisation is actually something very simple. It is essentially whether or not a website is programmed and designed to change its form to a more accessible style if viewed on a smaller screen. For example, below is a screen shot of the Google home page from my laptop (a 34 inch screen) via the Google Chrome browser.
While the picture below is a screenshot of the same Google page taken from my iPhone (a 9 inch screen) via the iOS Google Chrome browser.
Google, being Google, are of course optimised for mobile. But the reality for many housing associations is that their websites are not. To test this, the NHC undertook a randomised trawl of 20 websites of our members based in the north. We found that 12 out of the 20 were mobile optimised while eight weren’t, and that there was no real correlation between the size of the organisation and their likelihood to have an optimised website. It’s fair to say a 12/8 split shows that the social housing sector is on the right track with regards to mobile optimisation.
This briefing is intended to share the experiences and best practice from a variety of organisations – small and large – in the hope that NHC members can learn how best to approach their own mobile optimisation projects. They focus on organisations at various stages of their optimisation projects, from those just starting out (Bromford, Gentoo); those mid-way through their projects (Riverside) to those who have successfully completed them (Salix Homes, Derwentside Homes).
Bromford, a housing association based in Wolverhampton with around 28,000 homes were, in effect, the seed for this project. As part of Bromford’s communications strategy, Jarrod Williams, a regular blogger for BromComms, wrote about the email he received from Google. In what was deemed ‘mobilegeddon’, owners of websites that were not mobile optimised were emailed and told that unless their website was rejuvenated to be more mobile accessible, it would no longer feature at the top of search results on Google.
When Bromford tested their website using Google’s test software, it was found to have poor functionality for customers; a poor user experience across the majority of pages, key content hidden at the end of difficult and confusing user journeys as well as ‘content pollution’ – too many pages without any defined need.
As a result of this, the Bromford communications team have set about on a long-term project to build a brand new website from scratch which incorporates mobile optimisation from the outset and throughout. In the short term however, Bromford will embark on a programme of radically redefining user journeys on their website through extensive communication with their tenants, regular testing sessions with users of the website and consultation with staff and tenants so that the website is – first and foremost – customer friendly.
As part of the project, there will be extensive user mapping of all current pages (and every page in the future); new page requests processes for colleagues with the organisation, enhanced reviewing practices to ensure content is still relevant, regular user testing sessions (monthly) and more agile management of the site meaning Bromford can make changes to the site frequently but focused on one area at a time.
Comprehensive plan with short and long term aims; rebuilding the website from the ground up with mobile optimisation at its core.
Open, accessible project – documenting progress for staff and wider sector through BromComms blog.
Responsive feedback processes that involve as wide a range of users of the website as possible.
Key Contact: Jarrod Williams, PR & Digital
Gentoo is a registered provider with a stock size of around 29,000 homes based in Sunderland. Its digital agenda is in full flow with an active digital inclusion programme that encourages, nurtures and rewards volunteer digital champions. Aside from their digital inclusion programme, Gentoo are embarking on a course of digital transformation of their websites.
The project itself forms part of a wider drive to modernise Gentoo’s business structures and ensure better business to business integration across the organisation. For an organisation such as Gentoo – with a variety of corporate and social arms – improving the inter-business structure is essential.
The mobile optimisation and website refresh project was started at the initiation of Gentoo’s staff and customers offering feedback on its services; their accessibility and their usability. Their plans for mobile optimisation of their website are planned in stages with the various constituent parts of their website being mobile optimised in stages.
The first part of their website, the ‘for business’ section – essentially the corporate arm of Gentoo’s operation – has been optimised within wider changes to the companies’ website that have incorporated business to business (B2B) capabilities within their website. There has been a great deal of consultation with website users – staff and tenants – and the feedback provided has been incorporated, where possible, into the body of the project.
Gentoo’s future plans for mobile optimisation include an overhaul of their Choice Based Lettings (CBL) service to make it firstly more mobile-friendly and secondly, easier to navigate and more user focused. This will form a part of the project at a later date. Other plans, as part of a wider organisational change, include the need to future proof the IT systems by incorporating a new CRM system into the website.
Forms a part of a wider drive to improve business to business (B2B) communication.
Phased rollout that changes individual sections of the website as part of the wider project which allows for gradual trouble-shooting and avoids a deluge of problems.
Key Contact: Laura Brown, Digital Advisor
Riverside, a registered provider with around 51,000 properties, has undertaken their mobile optimisation as part of a wider modernisation drive within the organisation that includes a major overhaul of the Riverside website.
The push to modernise and optimise the website came from a variety of sources. Through Riverside’s annual STAR survey, they began to see trends emerging out of questions on digital life and digital ownership, primarily that their tenants were increasingly using mobile devices – smart phones and tablets – to access the internet over ‘traditional’ devices such as laptops and PCs. In addition to this, Riverside’s website is monitored using Google Analytics software which also showed an increase in website traffic from mobile devices.
From the outset, Riverside has sought to involve customers and staff. The project has its own board comprised of tenants and various staff from across the organisation with an interest in the website. As a result of this, the project – currently at the site design stage – benefits from near continuous feedback from users. The website overhaul fits with a wider drive at Riverside to reengineer business processes. Laura Bostock, PMO Project Officer for Riverside said that an expressed focus of the redesign was to change the website from its current corporate focus to being a more outwardly, customer focussed website.
As part of this, Riverside have engaged the services of Reason Digital to help with customer mapping with a view to overhauling the current layout of the site so that the landing page is leaner and more responsive to what visitors to the site actually require.
Riverside’s choice of Reason Digital was in response to their public and private sector experience building websites that were first and foremost tailored for customer service. Another key factor in their selection was that they are a social enterprise and this correlated with Riverside’s ethics and business values. PMO Project Officer Laura Bostock was also impressed that in the interview for the job, they referred to their current website and suggested changes from there.
Project board comprised of tenants and staff from across the organisation (not just the IT team).
Near continuous feedback on the various stages of the project which feeds directly into design.
Key Contact: Laura Bostock, PMO Project Manager
Salix Homes is a newly established registered social landlord with around 8,500 properties having previously been an arms-length management organisation (ALMO) attached to Salford City Council.
Salix’s mobile optimisation project occurred as a result of this change from ALMO to RSL as their previous website was hosted by the Council. Salix saw that a change in structure and the resulting new website that would be needed was an ideal point at which to fundamentally redesign their website as the old website was not optimised for mobiles or tablets. Their newly optimised site went live at the end of March 2015 and you can see the finished product below.
Salix were keen from the outset of the project to ensure that mobile optimisation was built into every part of the new site. James Allan, Marketing and Communications Manager at Salix Homes, said that this was in response both to wider demographic changes showing more and more people accessing websites via smartphone and tablet as reported by Ofcom as well as from evidence arising from Salix’s website analytics showing similar trends in the hardware used to access the website.
The website itself was designed externally and built to a brief provided by Salix. The shortlist of designers chosen had a mix of professional experience with some having designed for social housing organisations previously and others of working on similar websites for charities or other third sector organisations.
In formulating the brief for the project, Salix looked to the most recent customer survey that contained questions on tenants accessing Salix Homes’s website as well as barriers to accessing other websites more generally. Staff were involved with this part of the project too as Salix enabled them to chip in ideas with what they would want from a new website. A key part of the project was its ability to integrate the website with Salix Homes’s contact management system which resulted in a bespoke website being designed for Salix rather than an off the shelf design.
There was also a considerable focus on involving not just involved customers (those that sit on tenant boards etc.) but also involving the uninvolved customers by inviting traditionally resistant customers. When considering user journeys, Salix used analytics software and an understanding of their tenants use their website when considering the layout of the page. So pages that were most regularly accessed – to pay rent, to report a repair, to read Salix Homes’s news page – were placed at the top with other quick links appearing at the top of the hierarchy.
When testing the new website, Salix undertook heat mapping of the website. They analysed what customers would usually do on their website and tracked where on the page the cursor went most often. Salix Homes were pleased that their initial thoughts when designing the site were confirmed by this. As a result of the new website, staff are more involved with the creation, editing and general upkeep of content across their relevant areas of the website.
Heat mapped the website to guide its layout; analysed customer journeys on the website and tracked the position of the cursor on the page to inform mobile optimised layout.
Used a natural point in the organisation’s development (changing structure from an ALMO to an RSL) to undertake change.
Key Contact: James Allan, Marketing and Communications Manager
Derwentside Homes is a County Durham based landlord with around 6,800 properties. Based in North West Durham – a predominantly rural area – there was a real push to optimise Derwentside Homes website as it was felt that many customers would use mobile phones (using 3G or wi-fi) to access online services because of low take-up of other IT hardware. Unlike other organisations discussed in this briefing, the thrust of the project was more about modernising the website – with the associated push on accessibility – rather than any wider concerns about a whole system restructure.
Paul Moralee, Community Investment & Customer Services Manager at Derwentside Homes, set out to ‘grasp the nettle’ of the organisation’s website as it was his wish to make it easier to use and mobile optimised. Having bid for money internally, he approached Forepoint, a web design company based in Preston with a catalogue of public and private web design, to design a new, simple and accessible website for Derwentside. A strict deadline was given to Forepoint to ensure prompt delivery.
When designing the website, consideration was given to other IT infrastructure that used the website such as Orchard and other business software. The notion of simplicity in design was also replicated in the website’s system architecture to ensure functionality with other parts of Derwentside Homes’s IT infrastructure.
The design itself – as you can see in the images – is simple, functional and clean. It is based on blocks that move around depending on the device used to access the site. Paul Moralee, the project lead for Derwentside, said that Forepoint had demonstrated the site to a small contingent of staff at the organisation and they were impressed with its interface and its usability.
Since the website went live in April 2014, user numbers have gone up even without a heavy push on advertising the website. Derwentside’s VIP group – a community involvement network – were very encouraging in their feedback on the website and there was very little criticism of its design and functionality. As for analytics, the website uses Google Analytics as well as a monthly report from Forepoint about the site. In the most recent report (August 2015), it was found that the most popular browser used to access the website was Safari mobile – accounting for 25% of visits – which shows just how popular the website is becoming for mobile users.
Short timetable for the project with an emphasis on usability and accessibility
In 16 months, 25% of all site visits were done through Safari mobile with high numbers for other mobile browsers such as Google Chrome and Android
Key Contact: Paul Moralee, Community Investment & Customer Services Manager
We hope that each project identified in this briefing highlights the different approaches to mobile optimisation. We have deliberately selected projects at various stages of their inception so that members can learn as much as possible from the best practice of others. What is clear is that, regardless of the organisation, mobile optimisation doesn’t occur in a bubble: it is often a necessary component of wider changes to an organisations digital strategy.
It is also obvious that registered social landlords are very much aware of the changes among their demographics with regards to how their customers are accessing their website. As previously mentioned, there are more and more people using smartphones to access the internet and this is true of social housing tenants too. Organisationally, when considering mobile optimisation or website user journeys, it is imperative to involve as broad a range of people as possible from the organisation. Staff and tenants are the two main groups who access the website with any regularity so their concerns and thoughts must be taken on board.
Finally, like many things in life, intelligence is key. Of all our case studies and from wider conversations we’ve had at NHC, we know that website analytics are the absolute gold-standard when considering mobile optimisation and user journeys. Far from being something that is the preserve of geeks, social housing organisations must consult the analytics and decide and shape their plans around the pattern that emerge from them.
Website analytics are ideal tools to measure future take up of services offered by housing providers. As more and more customers begin to access services online, it makes reporting easier but also provides an insight into how customers are accessing websites whether through traditional hardware such as a PC or a laptop or through mobile hardware like tablets and smartphones. It will be imperative for housing associations to monitor the level of access to their websites and the means of access when considering how to measure channel shift in the future.