A website critique

In a recent Cultural Digital email I said that a newly-launched website for a visual arts venue (I’m not naming them here) fell short in terms of “accessibility, performance, search engine optimisation, and other modern website standards/basic common sense”.

I wanted to write something a bit more constructive about the kinds of mistakes and omissions I spotted, so here goes.

Taking the four areas I mentioned in order…

1. Accessibility

You shouldn’t need perfect use of your body and senses to use a website. Just like you shouldn’t in order to enter the venue itself. As well as the obvious ethical reasons for making your website accessible, there are commercial and, possibly, legal ones too.

There are some standards for this. W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are widely used. Let’s run the website in question past their most basic accessibility issues and see how it does:

  • Page title: This should be an easy one. Each page should have a distinct title to tell people what page they’re on. However, on this site they’ve just got the website’s domain name as the title for every page.
  • Image text alternatives (“alt text”): There’s no alt text for any of the images that I looked at.
  • Text:
    • Headings: There are no H1, H2, etc tags to give structure to the page and help people (or screen readers, or search engines) understand the structure of the page.
    • Contrast ratio: In several places there’s not enough colour contrast between the text and the background. The WebAIM colour contrast checker can help with this.
    • Resize Text: Finally, something that’s ok! You can resize the text in your browser and it doesn’t cause terrible layout issues.
  • Interaction:
    • Keyboard access and visual focus: Some of the most important elements aren’t accessible via keyboard shortcuts – specifically the menu and any of the buttons to buy tickets or memberships.
    • Forms, labels, and errors (including Search fields): This is fine.
  • General:
    • Moving, Flashing, or Blinking Content: This is generally fine, although there is some overlapping text in some places.
    • Multimedia (video, audio) alternatives: I didn’t spend much time looking for multimedia content. I did find a YouTube trailer and it was possible to select and control that via keyboard shortcuts, at least. There was no transcript though.
    • Basic Structure Check: Everything’s laid out in the right order, but it’s as if structural, semantic HTML doesn’t exist – it’s just div after div. Designing With Web Standards came out fifteen years ago but the lessons still apply.

All in all, that makes for gruesome reading, and I’ve only just scraped the surface.

A proper accessibility audit needs to be done manually but, if you’re interested in getting a headstart, you can get some of the way there with a few tools. Google’s Lighthouse is one.

Lighthouse scored the site 10 out of 100 for accessibility.

2. Performance

This is all about how quickly the site loads for the user. Site speed is important for all sorts of things, not least a decent user experience.

Site speed tests don’t tend to tell you how fast the site loads as such, because that depends on a person’s internet connection. Instead, they look at the size of the website you’re serving up, and then look to see how many techniques you’ve used to deliver the website as quickly as possible.

This site is pretty simple, but still manages to be a lot slower than it should be. The main problems are:

  • The images. The sites asks you to download much larger ones than it needs, shrinking them down in your browser. They’re also not optimised.
  • The site could also make use of caching.
  • It could also handle the 12(!) CSS scripts better.

Of the tools for grading website performance:

  • Lighthouse scores the site 8 out of 100.
  • Google PageSpeed gives it an F.
  • YSlow gives it a C.

3. Search engine optimisation

If you want to show up in search engines for relevant keywords then you need a website that features relevant content, that’s easily understandable by search engines, and that’s linked to by other relevant and reputable websites.

With cultural organisations there’s often minimal competition for the most relevant keywords and their sites usually attract good quality links without much effort. If you just care about being found by people who already know you exist, then that’ll usually be enough. You can even get by with a poorly optimised website.

That said, there are still plenty of reasons to get the basics right.

Many of the accessibility and performance issues above are also basic aspects of search engine optimisation. A quick glance shows that the site is also lacking:

  • The name of the organisation on the homepage.
  • A robots.txt file.
  • Schema markup.
  • Meta descriptions for each page.

On that last one, Google displays the meta description on the search results page when your website shows up.

If you don’t set a meta description for each of your pages then you’re at the mercy of whatever Google happens to pull out. Here’s a random example of what can happen…

ica london - Google Search

You don’t really want phrases like ‘Please check back soon’ and ‘There is nothing available here’ showing up.

4. Other modern website standards/basic common sense

There are some other technical issues, and some others that I’d flag as potential usability banana skins. For instance…

  • I’m willing to bet that a quick test (on something like UsabilityHub) would show that nobody can guess where the menu is.
  • The homepage defaults to showing what’s on, but shows today’s date at the top. That confused me, because I was looking on a Monday and they’re closed that day.
  • The date picker feature is just a pain all round.
  • Can you guess the difference between Red Membership, Green Membership, or Blue Membership? Those are the titles shown in the menu.
  • There’s no Open Graph markup.

I bet there’s more. I’ve only looked at a few pages.

UPDATE: I ran a very quick test and yeah, 84% of people failed to guess where the menu was. That’s crazy. They also took on average of 30 seconds to complete the test – that’s a lot of time to do such a simple task.

It’s common enough to use a logo as a link to the homepage (and from the user testing I’ve done before, even that’s not universally understood), but I’ve never come across it being used to open the menu before. Apparently I’m not alone.

To sum up

There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed, and presumably the website is a work in progress. But…

It’s not as if the things I’ve pointed out here are fancy ‘nice to haves’. They’re the basic building blocks of a competently built website. This stuff isn’t hard, and I really can’t see why a progressive, forward-looking organisation can’t reach that minimum level.

Finally, I just want to make clear that I’m not talking about the general look and feel of the site here. That’s much more of a subjective thing. It’s not my cup of tea, but then I don’t think I’m their target audience.

Lessons from The Library #1: Cultural organisations and ecommerce

The Library contains a spreadsheet with the CMS, ticketing platform, donations platform, and website designers/builders of 350+ of the largest UK cultural organisations.

I’ve just added a column to that spreadsheet showing which ecommerce platforms those cultural organisations are using for their online stores.

Of the organisations in my sample, 22% have an online shop. The others may well have some sort of ecommerce functionality but, rather than selling merchandise, they’ll be focused on some combination of tickets, memberships, and donations.

The chart below shows which ecommerce platforms these cultural organisations are using.

UK cultural orgs - online shops

In case the chart is too small for you, or you’re using a screen reader, those are:

  1. A custom solution
  2. Shopify
  3. WooCommerce
  4. Magento
  5. Tessitura
  6. Big Cartel
  7. Drupal Commerce
  8. NitroSell
  9. … and various others.

A few observations

I’m not surprised to see Shopify up there. Most of the online shop launches I’ve seen over the past year or so have been on Shopify. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of those custom solutions were replatformed onto Shopify over the next year or so.

Not that it’s always necessarily the right choice – copying everyone else is rarely a good guide. There are lots of considerations that might affect your choice of ecommerce platform.

However, from looking at who’s using what, a few trends seem to emerge:

  • For a small to medium-sized, standalone offering, Shopify is a popular choice.
  • If you’d like to integrate products into a WordPress website then WooCommerce might well make sense. The same goes for Drupal and Drupal Commerce.
  • If you have a large shop with some complicated requirements then there may be a case for Magento.
  • If you’ve got a very limited offering that’s closely tied to your ticketing offer (ie programmes and vouchers for ice-creams) then you might be able to get away with using your ticketing system.

About The Library

The Library is a constantly growing collection of information and resources related to the digital aspects of cultural organisations.

If you want to know which organisations are using the various ecommerce platforms (and much more besides) then join up and explore the data.

More about The Library here.

Launching the Library

I’ve launched a thing called The Library. Here’s a bit of background for anyone interested in the what, why, and how.

First up, in case you’ve not already, then pop over to The Library and read the FAQ. That should cover the basics.

What

The Library sits under the Cultural Digital banner – that’s the name of the weekly email newsletter I send out – and it’s a subscription service. Sign up and you’ll get access to a Google Drive containing info and resources relevant to how cultural organisations are making use of digital tech and media.

I reckon it’s very useful and pretty cheap. £200/year compares really well to the sort of fees research firms charge for their subscriptions, and I know I pay more than that for memberships and SaaS subscriptions that deliver much less value.

The Library is in very soft launch mode at the moment and will open properly in very early November. If you sign up now then you can save a whopping 50% off your first year.

Why

There are quite a few reasons for this.

Perceived need. A couple of years ago I put together a Google Sheet with lists of digital agencies (and others) that had experience of working with arts organisations. People seemed to find that really useful but I could only find the time to update it very occasionally. Although it wasn’t the intention, that has served as a kind of MVP for the Library.

Another thing is that in my consultancy work I get asked a lot of questions about what systems people are using, which agencies everyone’s working with, whether there’s a certain type of job description out there they can take inspiration from… that sort of thing. Previously, there was no quick and simple way of getting hold of that information. The Library fills that gap.

The number of early sign-ups so far has reassured me that the perceived need is an actual one so, fingers crossed, that’s the idea successfully validated.

Spreading the cost. I have to stay on top of this information in order to do my work, but it’s not the work itself. Collating it all takes a considerable amount of time and expertise and I can’t see any one client paying for it. Spreading the cost among lots of people would make it sustainable, allowing me to justify dedicating time to making it more comprehensive and keeping it all up to date.

A more informed sector. I can only work with so many people one-on-one. If there’s a way for the sector’s organisations, consultants, funders, and suppliers to all be that bit better informed then that’s a good thing, right?

An experiment in selling an info product. I like to learn by doing things. I’ve never run a subscription-based service before so this is a chance to do that. I fully expect the lessons I learn here to carry over to other things I do.

Selling my by-products. Years ago I read a Signal v Noise blog post about selling your by-products and it’s an idea that’s stuck with me since. In a sense, that’s what I’m doing here.

How

Here’s what I’m using to put this together.

The website was built very quickly with Strikingly. However, the subscription payment platforms you can integrate with are a bit ropey, so for the time being I’m taking one-off payments using Typeform, which integrates with Stripe. In turn, Stripe sends money through to my bank account and connects to Xero, my accounting software.

The payment bit will need to be revisited soon because it’s a long way short of adequate. However, it’s enough for me to launch with. Perfect can wait a little while (yay agile!).

A few simple automations kick in when someone signs up:

  • An excited message turns up in a Slack channel.
  • Their details are added to a Google Sheet so I can keep track of when they’re up for renewal.
  • Their email address is added to a list in Mailchimp
  • Mailchimp sends a welcome email apologising for the lack of automatic receipt and linking to a Typeform survey so I can find out more about their expectations

I’m mostly using Zapier for those automations.

Google Drive is the hub for all the resources. Library members will be given a login to a top-level folder with lots of very nicely ordered folders, spreadsheets, and documents.

Interested?

Sign up before it launches to get the first year for £100.