Enhancing the Living Well Essex website

Adult Services in Essex, working closely with local partners and communities, have further developed the Living Well Essex website. This case study forms part of our digital experts resource.


The site provides a wide range of information, guidance and signposting for people who may start to require help. It aims to enable independence and self-sufficiency through ‘self-directed support', as well as reducing costs. Enhancements include making the site accessible on mobile devices and producing printer-friendly page designs.

The issue and context

Like many authorities, Essex County Council is facing an increase in the number of older people with social care needs (projected at over 68 per cent between 2013 and 2035), a population of adults with learning disabilities that is expected to grow both in number and complexity of need, new responsibilities under the Care Act, and severe budgetary pressures.

Adult Services in Essex County Council have therefore been undertaking a number of major ICT projects and training programmes to enhance the service they provide to residents, enabling independence and self-sufficiency through promoting ‘self-directed support’ and reducing costs in line with current financial constraints. The initiatives include:

  • The implementation of a new case management system. This went live for adult services staff in April 2015 and is due to be extended to family services staff in April 2016
  • A significant awareness and training programme around the requirements of the Care Act, which came into force in April 2015
  • An information, advice, guidance and advocacy website, branded Living Well Essex, that can be used by both practitioners and residents, thereby meeting one of the key requirements of the

“Health and social care is an area that people find very confusing and often they only seek help when they are at crisis point. The feedback we’ve had from the Living Well Essex site is that users are really positive about it and it’s helping them to self-serve and plan ahead.” Information and Signposting Manager, Healthwatch Essex

These projects sit within a wider programme of change within the county council, which includes a focus on exploiting the potential of digital approaches. For instance, there is a major corporate programme underway to deploy mobile working solutions across departments to make staff more productive and increase engagement with residents.

The Living Well Essex website, which went live in late March 2015, has been designed to provide a wide range of information and signposting on key topics such as health conditions, financial and legal issues, the home and surrounding environment, and any other scenarios where people may start to require help. There is also information for people who look after others and advice on what to do if you are concerned about someone’s wellbeing.

“People do realize they have to help themselves and keep themselves well. Sixty people recently came to my local parish council meeting to hear about the options for older people.” Essex CC councillor

The aim is to provide a single repository that makes links between different situations and helps to prevent people losing their independence. A key feature of the site is that it tries wherever possible to avoid duplicating content that has already been created by others who are experts in their field – for instance, it signposts people to NHS Choices or the British Heart Foundation for people with specific medical conditions. Signposting can also be to private sector companies who can assist, for example shops that provide mobility equipment or organisations that provide care in the home.

Although the Living Well Essex website is linked to the county’s main website, it is branded and managed separately. This has been done for a number of reasons: to emphasise the partnership approach to developing the content and style of the site; in response to feedback from some residents that they were reluctant to approach the council on the sensitive issue of needing help; and to allow the developers more flexibility to use templates and formats that might not fit with the Essex CC corporate website.

The anticipated outcomes from developing the Living Well site are:

  • Supporting people who wish to ‘self-serve’ and do not want to approach the council about adult social care
  • Greater collaboration with partner organizations and community groups – for instance, the site has an events section where third parties can advertise classes and outings
  • More productive staff, who are more closely engaged with residents. In line with the county’s wider ambitions for mobile working, practitioners are able to share relevant, accurate information with people they meet, while working more effectively ‘on the go’ and avoiding the need for frequent returns to the office.

“Among our staff, it’s not just social workers who can benefit from the site. We also have a network of community agents who help with patient discharges from hospital. It’s a resource they too can use.” Essex CC councillor

The project objectives and targets The aim of the Digital Experts project was to complement the work already underway on Living Well Essex in three areas:

  • To make the website accessible on mobile devices. The site was developed to work on most modern web browsers, but the experience of accessing a site from a mobile device is often best when the website has been optimised to work on a smaller screen and with a mobile-specific version of the content.
  • To produce printer-friendly page designs. In order to reduce the ‘digital exclusion’ that an online-only offering would present, the project aimed to develop printer-friendly versions of all the content so that practitioners, friends, family members and carers can provide hard-copy information to people who cannot access the site directly.
  • To run a number of promotional events and workshops with community groups and partners. These events would demonstrate what the site offered, canvass views on potential improvements and enhancements and seek input and content to make it a truly local offering.

“The older people we are aiming to help often find it easier to absorb information from the printed page. So being able to print information from the site in an accessible format has been really valuable.” Essex CC councillor

“We get requests for information from people who don’t have computers. We’ve been able to print off material from the Living Well Essex site and post it to them.” Information and Signposting Manager, Living Well Essex

The county recognised at the outset that efficiency savings might be difficult to quantify as the benefits of the website would come from prevention rather than immediate cost savings, with fewer people approaching adult services (or partners such as the NHS) for assistance. Staff might therefore benefit from increased capacity, but the website was only one potential factor in delivering these improvements. With these caveats, the council proposed to use Google analytics to track site usage and performance.

In the longer term, the county hopes to demonstrate how a collaborative effort between the local authority, public health, NHS bodies and community organisations to provide high-quality information to residents can have an impact in terms of preventing, reducing and delaying needs and hence demand for services. This is a larger and more complex piece of work than the Digital Experts project, but is nonetheless dependent on having an effective and accessible website in place.

As for timetable, the project team planned to have completed the bulk of the work outlined above by June 2015.

The approach and progress to date

At the point Essex submitted its bid for Digital Experts funding (January 2015), the procurement process for the Living Well website had been completed and the site was in its design and development stage. A small number of partners, including Public Health and Healthwatch Essex, were already on board, providing encouragement for more organisations to join in. The site went live on the 27 March 2015.

Rapid progress followed the county’s successful Digital Experts bid. By early April, the site had been updated so that it functioned smoothly on a range of mobile devices. In parallel, external specialists completed two audits, covering both accessibility and search engine optimization, which highlighted a number of improvements not just to make the site more accessible to users but also to increase the site’s visibility to search engines.

Search engine optimisation isn’t always seen as being part of accessibility. But however well-designed a site, if it can’t be found easily via search engines such as Google then our audience can’t access it.” Website manager, Living Well Essex

Meanwhile, promotional banners and other communication material had been designed and printed for events with partners and internal stakeholders. A range of promotional activities took place during May 2015, including demonstrations to councillors, local Citizens Advice teams, Health and Wellbeing boards and internal staff. Traffic to the site increased 10-fold over the month. Engagement with the site from third parties, such as voluntary organizations, was overwhelmingly positive and the county worked with a number of them to improve content, carry out further testing with end users and promote the site more widely.

By early June 2015, and despite competing pressures on their resources, the website developers were working to implement a number of the improvements recommended by the audits. These included cleaning up some of the back-end style code and navigational menu, improving image tagging and colour contrast options and removing unnecessary steps from the site map/navigation. This work was completed by the middle of the month. Printer-friendly page designs had also been implemented. At the same time, scoping work was undertaken to look at further improvements to the images on the site and the possibility of adding further colour contrast options.

Since the summer of 2015, work has continued on both developing and promoting the site. The scope was expanded, for instance, to include an innovative new autism ‘hub’, which went live in March 2016 and includes custom-built accessible page templates with new colour options. Further promotion and engagement has also taken place, largely through meetings and events with both end users and providers/partners who could help communicate about the site.

The activities have included:

  • A presence at the AGM of the Essex Association of Local Councils
  • A presentation to Essex Housing Officers Group and attendance at local housing group meetings
  • Demos to Essex councillors who can in turn raise awareness as they go about their business
  • Promotion and testing with both staff and end users at MS UK
  • Engagement with organizations such as Essex Coalition of Disabled People, Age UK and Healthwatch Essex
  • Attendance at the Braintree District Council’s Health and Wellbeing Panel
  • Attendance at a Super Fast Essex promotional event  Promotion at local CAB offices and engagement with local community and voluntary sector organisations
  • Public displays in County Hall and demos to the county’s customer service centre
  • Regular promotion of site content via Essex County Council’s newsletter
  • The production of leaflets and credit card sized promotional cards that the above organizations can distribute to the public.

Meanwhile, end-user testing and engagement has covered key groups including people who are visually or physically impaired, deafblind or deaf, older residents and people with learning disabilities or mental health issues. The county’s community engagement team has produced a report analysing the feedback from all the different testing sessions and highlighting the comments – both positive and negative – about the site.

“The sessions with users were invaluable not just for suggesting improvements to the site, but also for validating with a wider audience the work that the project team had already done.” Website manager, Living Well Essex

By March 2016, therefore, the site had been extensively tested and ‘soft launched’ to end users, while the council had continued to: 

  • Change features such as the site map, content style and error pages to improve the way in which Google ranks the site, resulting in increased traffic from search engines and a more prominent display in search results
  • Improve the accessibility for those with additional needs, such as visual impairments, including making changes to the way elements of the site are displayed when using screen reader software and softening the colour tones in the autism section to make it more acceptable to autistic users
  • Improve the images on the site through additional or better tagging. The county recognizes that it needs to expand the image library, although this has not been a priority to date
  • Ensure the site is user-friendly and accessible on mobile devices. End users have proved broadly happy with the way the site works
  • Update pages so that the layout is easier to read when printed, for instance by removing unnecessary navigational items such as buttons and menus from the printed pages.

Google analytics is being used to evaluate the use of the site and gather performance data about site traffic, including referral sources, popular pages and so on. The monthly performance report for November 2015 for instance showed a steady growth in the number of users – up 8 per cent on the previous month to 5290, including 4712 new visitors. There had also been significant improvements in the site’s Google rankings for certain key terms. For example, people searching for ‘living well’ or ‘mental health Essex’ would now see the site on the first page of returns.

Information such as this is being used to guide future developments. Interestingly, the Google figures consistently show a drop-off in site traffic at weekends, suggesting the site is being well used by practitioners in both the county and its partners.

The outcome – successes and challenges

The Living Well Essex website is part of the council’s implementation of the Care Act through its ‘Good Lives’ programme. Good Lives is based around three offers in the form of conversations:

1. Help to help yourself

2. Help when you need it

3. Ongoing support for those that need it.

The first conversation (Help to help yourself) is crucial to prevention and early intervention and looks at how the council can help connect people to what is going on in their local community to keep them active and engaged. The Living Well Essex website is the key enabler for this element. Initial work on eight Good Lives innovation sites has led the council to believe there is the potential for £7.3 million of efficiencies over the next three years and it is now looking at rolling out the innovation sites.

One of the most encouraging successes of the project has been the enthusiastic response received from third sector organisations and other stakeholders. They have helped with a range of tasks including developing content, involving their client groups in testing and promoting the site through their networks.

Similarly, user engagement and testing sessions provided invaluable feedback on the site that helped shape its future design. The session with MS UK in particular also produced some very positive responses which will help in future promotion.

“I wish I’d had something like this when I was diagnosed.” Young woman (now in her early 20s) who was diagnosed with MS in her late teens.

On the other hand, the web developers struggled at times to meet the required deadlines as a result of demand from a number of authorities for similar initiatives, although delays were relatively minor. Keeping abreast of all many relevant activities going on in the county is also a continuing challenge.

Meanwhile, the county recognises that further work is required to assess the impact of the site on the volume of enquiries received through other channels, such as telephone calls to its contact centre, and therefore to evaluate the financial efficiencies it is helping to generate.

Key learning points

  • While it is valuable to integrate national sources of information – for instance via links to other websites – it is the local information about clubs, meetings, exercise classes and so on that the county hopes to collect which will really make a difference to a site such as Living Well Essex. The county has many diverse and geographically dispersed communities who need to find information that is directly relevant to them.
  • Promotional efforts, while time-consuming, often prompt a spike in site usage as well as encouraging partners to add to or update the content on the site. While it is tempting to rely on emails and other online promotion methods, face-to-face meetings, presentations and demonstrations are what really create big increases in interest.
  • The involvement of partners and other stakeholders is invaluable. Nonetheless, it remains important to be clear what underpins any problems they identify and to consider what provides most added value before making additions to a site such as this. There may be simpler and cheaper alternatives to making the site more useable.

The project team had considered introducing a new screen reader for the site. However, they have now taken a step back and are evaluating whether having a cleaner site layout, introducing bigger fonts and further simplifying its language would actually be a better way of improving accessibility. 

  • Similarly, user engagement and testing is critical. However, everyone has their own interests and agendas, making it impossible to please all the different users all of the time. The key is to find a balance between the different demands and to consider their practicality – for instance signed video is great but would require re-shooting after every change.
  • The sustainability of a site such as Living Well Essex remains a key issue. The more information is included on the site, the greater the challenge of making that information accessible and easy to find. There also needs to be continuous engagement with local bodies to ensure that the information they supply is kept up to date.

Next steps

Building on the success of the autism hub, the project team is now looking at developing a similar hub for people with learning disabilities. They are also looking to incorporate new features, such as self-assessment options, into the site.

The team has also taken up a contract option to include a comprehensive support directory on the site, which will consolidate the many partial directories spread across the county. This will form part of the county’s response to the second set of Care Act requirements from April 2016. The requirements and specification phase was finished in late December 2015 and technical build up started in January 2016. The directory will be publicised once a critical mass of organisations and services has been accumulated and loaded. The team also continues to monitor the opportunities to acquire information of local relevance on a syndicated basis – for instance, details of local health providers from NHS Choices.

Preparations are underway, in collaboration with the county’s communications team, for a formal public launch of the wider Living Well Essex site. The launch will be carefully timed to tie up with (and where appropriate to avoid) other events and launches that partner organisations are undertaking and is likely to be during summer 2016. The council is particularly keen that the launch forms part of a ‘different sort of conversation’ with Essex residents.

In the longer term, there is scope to involve more partners in the site. In particular, closer engagement with the Health Service is seen as essential, including with hard-pressed GPs who often have little time to find out about resources such as Living Well Essex. The county also has five CCGs which it would like to encourage to use the site more fully. Essex is developing its libraries as ‘community hubs’ and sees the website as a key resource for library staff.

For further information on this project, please contact:

Catherine Holmgren, Web Content Editor, Living Well Essex Essex County Council

t: 03330 133349
e: catherine.holmgren@essex.gov.uk

Catherine Holmgren, website manager, Living Well Essex

Catherine talks about the rationale for the site,  content  and the use of feedback and analytics in its improvement.

Richard Biscoe, IT Project Manager for the Care Act in Essex County Council

Richard discusses the Care Act

Clare Hardy, Head of Commissioning for Vunerable People at Essex County Council

Clare outlines the Living Well Essex website.