The bold and the beautiful
You can set up an impressive e-business engine, but if you don't pay due attention to content design, you'll be a long time waiting for custom. These companies made it to the shortlist by concentrating on both.
The Lord Chancellor's Department
The Community Legal Service Web site, 'Just Ask!', has a simple ethos for a complex task. It is designed to provide an easily navigable route to legal advice on any matter relating to English law. Users can find reliable, monitored information by asking a series of questions that link them to a range of carefully selected sites from across the Web. If needed, the details of individuals or organisations that can take the matter further will also be provided.
The site is available as an intuitive interface. But perhaps the most important feature of the site's accessibility is that it is multilingual, covering the seven most commonly spoken community languages in the UK.
Technically, the multilingual feature uses the Unicode format. The search facility is built on Infoseek's Ultraseek Server, with modifications. Web sites that might hold useful information are constantly monitored and graded each night. Ratings are thereby assigned to match their relevance to the query of the individual concerned.
Apart from general users, the site is part of the Government's attempt to help ethnic minorities access legal advice.
'Just Ask' is also innovative as a government site in that it is attempting to be truly citizen-facing. Savings to the taxpayer are also expected, since it will reduce unnecessary visits to agencies, and perhaps help to avert some disputes altogether.
From day one, 3 April 2000, the site was running on PCs, games consoles, kiosks and interactive TV.
Proof of success is beginning to emerge. The site received about 1,000 page impressions a day, meeting initial targets, and over 50% of users rate the site as good or very good.
This is an admirable site, both in terms of its intentions - to provide legal information and resources to the public - and its execution. The site is user-friendly, easy to navigate and attractive. Pages download very quickly, even using a normal dial-up connection. Though unburdened with bandwidth-hungry graphics, the site still manages to avoid being visually boring and text-heavy. The content is in clear language and - a minor miracle on the Web - correctly spelled and punctuated, at least in the English version. This site surely represents very well what the creators of the Web had in mind as an effective use of the new medium.
Aquazoo is a small, family-run fish keepers' shop in Croydon that has achieved massive success, both commercially and with the public, for its Web site.
Since launching its e-business arm, the firm's high-street presence has continued to be an important element of the business, for potential customers 'browsing' fish tanks as much as anything else. But the Web site is important in terms of extending the relationship the shop has with the individual customer, both in terms of building loyalty and providing a new revenue stream.
The launch of the Web site, in April 2000, has also led to the firm becoming the sole distributor for Sera products (www.serapartners.com), a brand that covers a range of fish foods and water conditioners. Perhaps this was in part due to the technical feel of the Web site. Most retailers in this area use aquatic imagery to reflect their brands, but Aquazoo appealed to the serious fish keeper by designing a more rigorous look that makes it stand out from the crowd. Innovative design is a tradition within the firm, as any visitor to the shop will realise when they see its stylish black and steel tanks.
Hit rates stand at around 1,000 first-time visitors per week. The site also roots the ongoing relationships with over 100 Aquatest subscribers, which represent important repeat business.
Further success for the business has come in the shape of substantial trade and specialist press interest. The business is now trusted as the Web site expert within the industry as a whole. A Croydon Small Business Award said, "It has taken them from local business to national and even international trade."
This site for fish keepers is an impressive effort for a small business. It has acted not as a drain on the existing business, or simply as a promotional tool, but as a means of extending its reach far beyond Aquazoo's geographical location. It has also moved the company into the business-to-business arena, as it has now become an exclusive distributor of some products through a companion Web site. The site's design contains a lot of information, that is intelligently organised and easy to navigate. The look and feel is clever, evocative of an underwater environment without using fishy clich‚s. The use of red, amber and green for denoting the relative difficulty of keeping different kinds of fish is effective and little tricks like the fishy cursor and the shopping trolley 'net' metaphor are fun.
Hampshire County Council
Local government has often struggled to increase contact with its constituency. With Hantsweb, Hampshire County Council is making significant inroads into finding new ways of enhancing council services.
Online information from the site includes the arts, social care, education and learning, libraries, planning, travel and transport, the environment and waste management. Special collections such as online clubs, societies and support groups are also present. The five million pages of information stored in the system are chopped up in various ways to increase accessibility. Answers can be found by searching, via navigable directories, across so-called 'fastpaths' for popular queries, and in an A-Z directory.
However, managing such qualities of HTML pages is no small matter and so content creation is highly devolved in the organisation, regulated by compliance to detailed standards and style guidelines. Devolved authors are supported by a central team of experts. The success of this approach to content maintenance is reflected in a number of awards that Hampshire County Council has received.
The Web site is used by more than 16,000 internal staff accessing the Hantsnet 2000 intranet which also integrates e-mail, human resources and other applications, such as word processing. Hantsweb currently receives about 7.5 million hits per month, representing about 135,000 first-time host visits. It cost £150,000 to set up.
The site's success is not only reflected in user rates, but also in its acceptance within the day-to-day operations of the council. This integration with normal business processes is as much a part of its success as anything else. In short, it is practical, and so it wins people over.
The most immediately impressive aspect of this site is how comprehensive it is: 700,000 pages have been re-purposed from Hampshire's intranet. Though it appears to be a cost-effective resource for staff, the site goes well beyond pure 'council' content, encompassing community information and links to a large number of external sites. For such a huge collection of information to be useful requires excellent navigation and search and the site delivers particularly well on the latter, using Muscat. Search is global and also specialised to particular areas of interest, which is an effective strategy to adopt. Its devolved publishing model gets around the difficulty of visual heterogeneity by strictly applied style guidelines and standards for authors. Overall the site gives the impression of being at the hub of community activity, allowing people who live and work in the area to use it to publish for a local audience.