Follow the Evidence …. Lessons from the Citizens Advice digital team

Citizens Advice for England and Wales probably has the world’s most comprehensive online advice provision. This is in the course of being revamped, with the intention of making the organisation much more digitally oriented. In 2015-16, the website recorded 36m visits. Two recent posts on its digital blog indicate the growing sophistication which is now possible in its content: the latest by Alex Gladwell is entitled ‘Why we broke our own publishing rules with the new Consumer Credit advice’ and an earlier one by Hannah Horton ‘Why we removed the most visited advice page on our website’. These are worth reading as indications of global best practice.

The brilliant thing about both of these postings is that they indicate an organisation which is monitoring, evaluating and then deciding on the content of its website in response to how it is actually used. The digital team found that, although 70,000 people a month were visiting its page of basic rights at work, very few were actually staying on it long enough to read very much. Citizens Advice were able to trace actual use of the site through ‘heat maps’ which registered where most people spent time reading. Most were just looking at a table of contents at the top of a general page but were not reading through the information on each individualised right. A feedback option collected the following responses that confirmed the limited value of the page:

For those users who do make it to the bottom of the page, there’s a link to give feedback. Over the last year the feedback is mostly from people who can’t find what they’re looking for:

“There appears to be no information about giving notice to your employer.” “The paragraph doesn’t tell the client much about what action they can take over bullying.”

When we tested a new version of the page with the public, they were all clear it didn’t meet their specific needs:

“It’s all statutory rights — I just want to know about my maternity.”

“It’s just information.”

The answer, thought Citizens Advice, was to tailor content much more practically to specific topics for which users were searching:

Most searches that bring users to the page are about specific problems. For example, ‘boss doesn’t give me breaks at work’ or ‘how much a week do I get if I go on the sick at work’.

The other post provides a contrast in result, but not approach. It concerns Universal Credit, an ambitious new social security benefit – beset with teething problems – which is designed to replace a range of existing benefits in a phased way. Here the Citizens Advice approach was summarised as:

We help people solve problems with online advice they can act on. When it comes to benefits, people want answers to things like whether they’re eligible and how they can appeal decisions.

They don’t usually look for general benefit information. So we have a rule not to publish content like this. For example, you won’t see a page on the site titled ‘What is Personal Independence Payment?’

Follow the evidence

But are there circumstances when the normal rules don’t apply? Well, sort of. To paraphrase Picasso, you have to know the rules before you can break them. And one area where we’ve taken an evidenced-based decision to break our own rules on not publishing general information is Universal Credit.

They key thing here is evidence — if what people are looking for suggests taking a different approach, there’s no reason not to.

And in this case, we quickly found that whether someone is thinking of applying for benefits for the first time or claiming benefits already, there’s a genuine user need for explaining what Universal Credit is.

Citizens Advice’s evidence-based monitoring, evaluating and changing of content is surely impeccable. The organisation has, relative to other organisations around the world, large resources – with a total budget of over £100m or $130m. But its approach to the detailed interrogation of the value of its content sets an example that can be followed by all with the time and commitment to monitor the actual use of their online provision. What these contributions show is that, once you gather data on the actual use of websites, it become very clear that users generally want as much specific information on their problem as possible rather than long screeds about general principles. But that, on occasion, there may be exce

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