Mystery shopping of online information and advice services


n.bhupinder / Foter / CC BY


The Care Act includes a specific duty for local authorities to establish and maintain a service for providing people in its area with information and advice relating to care and support for adults and support for carers, regardless of whether or not they have eligible care needs.

Although the Act makes clear that LAs do not need to deliver the whole service themselves, they are responsible for its being available in the area they cover.

Many local authority social care departments have responded to this requirement by building directories to enable self-funders as well as traditional users of council social care services to ‘self-serve’ their information and advice needs. Others have gone a step further by providing ‘emarketplaces’ where people can select and buy social care-related goods and services online.

Earlier this year, ADASS in the West Midlands commissioned a piece of work to find out what authorities in the region were planning to do to meet the Care Act I&A requirement online and then, post April, to test the facilities put in place through a ‘mystery shopping’ exercise.

The method was adapted from that used by the Society of IT Management (Socitm) for its long-running Better connected research into the quality of local authority websites. This uses a series of structured questions to test whether online facilities enable customers to easily find information and carry out specific tasks that they want to do online.

There is plenty of research to show that, faced with a poor online experience, not only will people be dissatisfied, they will also tend to resort to more expensive channels (eg phone or face-to-face) to meet their needs, or give up altogether, leaving needs unmet.

Questions for the West Midlands mystery shopping exercise were designed to take reviewers into the social care directories and emarketplaces as well as to social care pages on councils’ corporate websites. Task-based, they also covered general areas of health and wellbeing for older people, as well as topics more obviously in the social care arena like deferred payments, including:

  • Find out if my parent is eligible for deferred payment agreement and how to apply
  • Can I get a meals service for my elderly relative and what will it cost
  • Can I find a local approved provider of help at home care services (assume self-funders)
  • Find out about fitness classes for older people

Testing began not on the council website, social care directory, or emarketplace, but in Google, where most people tend to start their online enquiries. The question set for each task also tested whether councils’ site search, A-Z facility and general navigation took visitors where they needed to go to complete each task.

In short, the testing approach was designed to show whether:

  • information could be found starting from a search engine
  • site navigation and other usability tools (menus, A-Z, search) worked well
  • content was relevant, easy to understand, consistent, jargon free and easy to access (eg not confined in pdf downloads)
  • the ‘customer journey’ was straightforward (particularly where content has been spread over several different websites) avoiding circles and dead ends
  • specially developed directories and emarketplaces were actually ‘findable’ by Google and from the main council website.

General findings from the exercise were presented at a workshop and followed up with each authority being provided with a spreadsheet containing individual results from their own websites. Some clear messages emerged:

Findability: attention needs to be paid to search engine optimisation if council online services are to be found by people using search engines. There are a lot of other voluntary sector and government websites as well as the private sector providing information and services in this space, and sites that do not appear high on Google listings will tend to be overlooked. One point that seems not well understood is that the main council website with its suffix will tend to do better in search than separate sites that are .org something else. In carrying out the mystery shopping in the West Midlands, there were some directory and emarketplaces that were not found at all, either from Google search or from navigating and searching on the council corporate site.

Linking with the main corporate website: for the reason set out above, it is really important that there is lots of linking (with appropriately labelled links) to directory and emarketplace sites from the corporate website. Clearly this must be done from the adult social care pages, but there may be other pages to link from too, considering the breadth or information and advice implied in the ‘wellbeing’ remit. So if social care departments are trying to encourage older people to be more active, the corporate website’s leisure pages need to reflect this. Pictures of older people (not just the lycra generation) exercising would help – and please, can we have pictures that look like real older people? Getting these links across the corporate website will require interaction and negotiation with the corporate webteam as well as colleagues in different departments.

Consistency: the ‘customer journey’ to information needs to be consistent. It is not uncommon to find similar links that take visitors to completely different pages with completely different information. Or to find that site search, A-Z and navigation using the same term (lets say ‘meals for the elderly’) all produce different results. Or that three different links on one page all go to the same destination page. These may seem like small things but they cause confusion and loss of confidence in the online option. Avoiding them requires testing, testing and yet more testing. There are lots of ways to do this without incurring massive costs – certainly in comparison to some of the money that has been spent creating the websites in the first place.

I could go on to discuss use of alienating jargon; the tendency offer assessment rather than information; and reluctance to spend time crafting 100 words when dumping 1000 is easier; there is a lot to say and a lot of it, after a few key issues, is about attention to detail.

The good news is that there is an awful lot of information and knowledge ‘out there’ about how to provide top quality information, advice and shopping websites. The challenge now is to adapt this for people who have social care needs and want to ‘self-serve’.

One of the authorities that performed well in our mystery shopping was Warwickshire County Council. On two of our tasks, the ones about finding a local approved provider of help at home care services, and fitness classes for older people, we recommended the WCC approach to other authorities.

Warwickshire is a council that has a long track record of good performance in Socitm’s Better connected assessment, and its online social care presentation follows many key areas of good practice.  Relevant information and services are easy to find whether you go in from Google or the council home page, and information tends to be complete and well-written but also succinct. The Warwickshire Directory, which has been set up as a subdomain of the main corporate site, is well integrated with good linking from the site. The Directory also sets out very clearly what information is being provided and on what basis.



Jenny Wood hi-res


by Vicky Sargent, Boilerhouse

and Jenny Wood, Warwickshire County Council








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