Saturday, 31 May 2014

A new platform for LocalGov Digital

Last week a project I'm managing launched two new websites, this week I'm part of a group that's launching a new beta website for LocalGov Digital.

We aim for the new LocalGov Digital website to become both a voice and a resource for digital practitioners working in local government.

It's the new home for the Content Standards, which aim to help content designers create local government websites in easy to understand, plain English. It's the new home for the guide on how to share code, helping digital practitioners work more collaboratively. Both these and more come under the LocalGov Makers banner, the design and development network from LocalGov Digital.

More than that just a resource though, it's a voice for digital practitioners bringing together tweets, blogs and more from those who work on the digital front line, in or around local governments, through Sarah Lay's creation, LocalGov Digital Voice.

We hope that a regular audience will return to see what's happening across local government digital and we can add your voice to the site too. Haven't got a blog yet? Now's a great time to start and get your localgov digital voice heard.

The site was built using open source CMS Umbraco, which means, true to the aims of LocalGov Digital, it can be amended and added to if someone feels they can create something to improve it. I found it a great opportunity to get to know this CMS and feel we've only scratched the surface of what we could achieve using it.

I would like the site to become a collaborative space for local government digital practitioners which means it's very much a start and a new platform to build on, rather than the finished article.

We'd love to hear your feedback and for you to shape the future direction of what we add to the site. Please get in touch with us @LocalGovDigital or with me @PhilRumens of you'd like to be part of it.

Monday, 26 May 2014

A Tale of Two Websites

Sunday night, 7pm, 19 May, we launched our new websites, and, the products of a project called Choose Digital.

I'm going to tell the story of the culmination of a year's work and a whole lot more planning, though past posts on my blog and those that helped inspire it.

We start back in 2011 when I was thinking about the next generation of local government websites. Perhaps one site wasn't enough to publish information, engage with people and deliver digital services. I looked at the retail sector and originally thought about creating "customer" and "shareholder" or in the case of local governments, "citizen" websites.

It wasn't until we asked what the purpose of each site was, we decided on a service or "doing stuff" site (www), and an information or "reading about stuff site" (info).

So that's the sites themselves but also in 2011 I started thinking about content, not as web pages but as reusable objects. Pages weren't just pages any more but where possible, meta descriptions of services or physical locations, here's the structured data on a page about one of our offices, for example.

The strange thing is, whilst traditionally new websites are all about attracting more visitors, this approach could actually reduce website visits, and even weirder, this would be a good thing.

We then needed to think about what we'd put on the site. This wasn't difficult. Essentially the service site was a catalogue of all services that could be created digitally and the other would contain supporting information on those and all other services.

The initial index we used was the Local Government Services List (LGSL), not to be confused with the Local Government Navigation List. In May 2013 we compared the LGSL with what our organisation actually did and created a complete list of what the council did and therefore potentially needed to be included on the new sites.

In July we took the list we'd created, printed cards for each of the services or bits of information on the list and spent time sorting them in to two structures. This formed the basic taxonomy for the new sites. It's changed a bit since then, and will continue to do as what the council does and what people expect to see on the site evolves.

In September 2013 we launched our alphas and gradually the design evolved. If you're running a similar project, try to run a public alpha, definitely run a beta. I could write a big section on this but don't take my word for it, read the Government Service Design Manual; Government Digital Service have already done the hard work to make it simple.

It's also about this time that I and local government colleagues in my and other councils started working on the LocalGov Digital Content Standards. The standards seek to improve the quality of content across the sector and are a resource which councils can take wholesale for their own use, or append localisations to.

It's worth noting that we didn't re-write our existing content, we chose to start again, an approach supported by both usability expert Gerry McGovern and former Head of Content Design for GOV.UK Sarah J Richards which enabled us to make sure our content adhered to the five golden rules of the Standards.

By October 2013 not only were starting to write content, we were starting to develop digital services. Some councils have taken the approach of creating exemplars. We did something different and created a Minimum Viable Product for each service, where it was feasible to do so.

This enabled us to start creating over 100 transactions the user could complete online which were at the very least in enough of a functional state request and deliver the service.

In January we were ready to launch our betas and we started to get the opinions wider groups of our own council officers, elected members, more of the public and peers in the the public sector. The LocalGov Digital Google+ Community proved really useful for this and we posted designs and links to content and invited feedback.

The betas continued to evolve and a month before launch we started to test with a local Age UK session, children's centre users, young people with learning difficulties and more.

So this all brings us to 7pm on 19 May, when we launched the new sites. One with over 100 digital services, the other with less than 1,000 easily understandable pages, written in plain English to the LocalGov Digital Content Standards.

Whilst it's the very nearly the end of the Choose Digital project, it's also the start of something else.

We built a dashboard which shows which service are being used when, so now the process of iterative improvement of our digital services starts, and rather than a best guess about which to improve first we've got actual data to use, or will have a month after launch, when we've got a full set of data, but that's another blog post altogether.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

People, Personas and the Unpredictable

A few weeks ago I spoke at an event in London about the LocalGov Digital Content Standards and how they're helping councils make better websites.

Another talk covered user testing and the speaker showed a picture of session they'd helped facilitate. In the picture however, there were no real users, just personas.

Wikipedia describes a persona as "a social role or a character played by an actor" and it's not uncommon for digital teams to create persons to help them design the content, taxonomy and other aspects of their sites.

User testing by young people with learning difficulties
So in the picture I saw, council staff were interviewing other council staff who were role playing users. Now, there's nothing unusual about this in usability testing, however when I asked if they'd tested with real users the reply was "No, we tried that and they're too unpredictable".

This seemed bizarre and reminded me of an example of unpredictably that excluded someone from using one of digital services.

When we created a digital service for people to apply for free school meals we included a select field for the year of birth of the applicant. To make things easier for users, so we they weren't shown a huge list, we set the earliest year an applicant could be born in as 1950.

If you were to construct personas and decide which would apply for free school meals it would probably be those aged between 18 to 40 years old, so setting 1950 as the earliest date should have been fine shouldn't it? It wasn't.

A couple of months after launch we got a phone call from someone saying they they couldn't use our service. Why, because they were born in the 1940s. The unpredictably of a grandparent applying for free school meals had made the service unusable for them.

This was a great lesson for us, and as a result we've been testing out with users at an Age UK session, young people with learning difficulties (pictured above) at a local Post 16 facility, children's centre users and we plan to run more sessions with an even wider range of people.

As a result we've been learning out all sorts of things that I'm sure another member of staff playing a user wouldn't have been able to teach us. I'm not saying I think we've captured all the potential problems before we launch, but I bet we've found a lot more than if we'd just tested with personas, and of course the process of iterative improvement will continue after launch based on real user feedback both in user testing sessions and general use.

Personas have a purpose, but if you're creating new digital services or content I suggest you test it out with as many real people a possible. It's more work, but capturing as much unpredictable behaviour as possible will most certainly help you create a better product.

This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.