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.
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.