Avoiding the fate of Sisyphus

When we made our new website www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk live, we announced that we had finally got to the start line – this was the beginning of the journey not the end of one.

Rather than being a moment to sit back and relax in the smug afterglow of go-live, it was time to roll up the sleeves (not that they had not already been well and truly rolled up!) and start improving the customer-centric site based on lots of live data that was flowing in from real users.

The fact that the site had been in public Beta for about four months meant that the issues were relatively few. Having developed the site entirely using an in-house team meant that any problems could be fixed cheaply within hours or days (I doubt this would have been the case if we had procured a digital solution from an external provider).

But the point about this blog post is to describe how we got to the start line.

It seems that many local authorities end up feeling like Sisyphus – the king who, according to Greek mythology, was condemned to push a huge boulder up to the top of the hill for eternity. Each time he nearly got there it would roll back over him and he would have to start again from the bottom.

But what makes local authority digital progress feel so sticky?

As the Digital First sponsor, which is the programme that is seeking to deliver multiple digital transformation strands, I have learnt a lot since I joined the authority from the private sector about five years ago. I have to admit, I never appreciated the amount of behind-the-scenes work and corridor conversations that would be needed before we truly got going.

  1. Get senior management buy-in – this is easier said than done. The directors need to believe in your abilities to transform the website. A lot of this is about changing the culture – websites are seen as bits of technology and therefor sitting firmly in the lap of ICT. Until the directors can see that the customer is the driver, not the technology, progress will be slow.
  2. Political backing – as with the senior management, elected Members need to understand the benefits of pursuing a customer-centric approach to the website design. Regular meetings with senior members helped to change the paradigm. This was followed by establishing a Digital Member Champion and regular reports to Committee with show and tells incorporated
  3. Consistent Messaging – as professional communicators we can sometimes forget the basics for our own business. We developed a set of messages that we repeated often until they became almost a mantra within the organisation. These included it being about the users not technology and how it would unlock savings for services
  4. Internal territorial battles – sort them out beforehand! Some authorities have seen digital as a battleground for territory with lots of areas staking a claim. The reality is that all have a case and need to be involved – roles and responsibilities need to be clarified at the outset to stop this becoming a distraction to the main objective
  5. Engage with services but place customers at the heart – positioning this is critical in terms of success. Services have often produced content from their perspective using language that they would use rather than the customer. To move from this position requires an evidence-based approach that presents real feedback from real users
  6. Build momentum – promote small wins. It is not just good enough to deliver. You need to spend time building the narrative, using infographics to show the result in easy-to-understand ways.
  7. Establish team credibility – build up your team, recruit the best that are available, make them believe in their own professionalism. Move from a “generalist” digital tag to ones with deeper specialisms around SEO, UX and data analysis
  8. Project manager – get a good one! Resolving conflict along the way is critical. There will be issues that need to be addressed and you need someone that is bold enough and politically astute enough to know when and how to get things unstuck.
  9. Cultural issues – as everyone knows, culture takes an age to change and the only way to do it is by lots of small steps with constant repetition of what you are doing and why. Don’t think that because you have said it once, that that is enough
  10. Never give up believing that, one day, you will roll that boulder up that hill!

While it would be easy to brag that we have delivered a new website, developed a new social media strategy, built a new schools portal and reviewed 50 microsites in the space of just over a year, the reality is different.

Getting to the point when we had the go-ahead to build a specialised digital team that would deliver such an important transformation programme has taken considerably longer. It is hard to pinpoint the exact point it started but ever since I joined the authority five years ago  it has been my ambition to deliver a website that would take us from the back of the middle of the pack to near or at the front.

And, while we are not there yet, we are certainly on the way thanks to one of the strongest and most talented digital teams in local government.

We are finally starting to push the boulder up the hill – let’s just hope the fate of Sisyphus does not repeat itself!

Posted by Martin Done, Communications and Marketing Director

100 days of beta

On Tuesday 22 September we transitioned the new nottinghamshire.gov.uk website from beta to live, making it the official online channel of Nottinghamshire County Council.

This followed around 100 days in the public beta phase where we built, tested and refined content and website structure. It was a really useful process to go through and meant that we’d tackled a lot of issues and questions – both big and small – before making it the official website and redirecting our customers to it.

But in truth this is where some really interesting work begins. Now our customers are arriving at the new website from search engines (and other starting points) we can see, with significant volume, how they are using the website and begin to understand more about how we can continue to make things better for them. We’re excited to move more services online through the website, improve more customer journeys (with end-to-end process design) and test the details of the design and content with some multi-variant and further usability testing.

Moving to live wasn’t done with a perfect site, but with a site where more content was improved than not. It was done in a way where we tried to cause minimum disruption to our customers but rather provide a smooth transition from our old site to the new. And it was done at point where we’d learnt a lot from beta testing and iterating but in many areas would get real value from seeing real customers carrying out genuine transactions.

There is a still a lot to deliver on the website and through Digital First (we’re still working on our social media, mircrosite and intranet workstreams too) but having moved between phases it is a good time to reflect a little on what we learnt over the summer.

Going into beta early is good

There’s a balance to be found on when to go into a public beta but we found that having some, not all, of our content in place and having the beta running parallel to the existing website worked for us. We were able to continue with our development while gathering feedback, we were able to drive traffic to it when we needed more information about work we were doing and it really helped with having conversations with services and customers as we were able to show, rather than tell them about, the thing we were building.

Doing the hard work to make things simple

There have been some problems that have challenged the delivery team but were vital to tackle, problems that are perennial across digital delivery in local government. From the information architecture to legacy systems, as a project and as a Council we weren’t satisfied with recognising these as complicated but rather wanted to really grasp them and try to find the solution. This is hard work by the team in order to make things simple for our customers. We’ve made progress but we’ve a long way to go.

Leave no link behind

We did a huge amount of work to put in place redirects so that the transition between beta and live was as seamless as possible for our customers. Did this work perfectly? No. Did it work perfectly in the majority of cases? Yes. We can count on one hand the number of pages which 404’d accidentally rather than on purpose. Despite reducing our site by around 20,000 pages we tried to make sure that each old page pointed at something relevant wherever possible. We think this will pay off with Google but more importantly we hope it will pay off with our customers too.

The team is important

Building an in-house team has been important to delivering at this speed and scale. Being able to mobilise the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience as well as having hands-on control of our technology has made a huge difference to our ability to deliver. It’s also given the benefit of supporting the culture change in the organisation, enthusing services about the possibilities of digital and sharing skills to improve the digital capabilities across the workforce.

Keep kicking at the walls

Customer needs first; functional design can be beautiful; content is important; the whole customer journey in all its wibbly-wobblyness between channels is vital to understand and deliver for. These are some of the truths we’ve stuck to in the delivery of Digital First so far and form the foundation for the project moving forward. The way it has always been done in the past doesn’t have to be the road map for our future.

Live is just the starting line

For many web projects putting a site live is an end point and despite best efforts the site depreciates in value from there as development slows or stops and governance (often) is too flimsy for the content it manages. That’s the old way, the usual way but it isn’t ours.

Now we have real people using our site for real transactions we’re prioritising the small iterations that will make that easier for them, the things that could be presented better. We’re also getting to work on development sprints for areas of content or functionality we want to push further.

Moving to live is a big step, but it’s just another in a longer journey.

Posted by Sarah Lay, Senior Digital Officer (Digital Team Leader)


You can find our website at www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk and if you’d like to leave feedback you can do so through this survey.

To keep up to date with Digital First work and find out about opportunities to get involved in usability testing sign up to bulletins from emailme.

Making nottinghamshire.gov.uk live

Our new website www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk went live yesterday after 18 months of hard work that was focused on making sure that it was a site built around the needs of users.

All through this project, we have been keen to push the message that this is about people not the technology and that what we were seeking to achieve first and foremost was a highly functional site that meant as many people as possible would choose to carry out transactions online.

The fact that we were able to have the site in Beta for four months before launch meant that many of the improvements had already been made and when we switched sites there was not the usual dramas or nervousness around many web launches.

The fact that we used an in-house team to develop the whole site means that we can continually improve the site as we monitor usage and feedback – this is the main advantage over using a third party to develop your site which often makes the improvement cycle slow and costly.

We are now able to promote a Council website that is fit for the modern age and will support the move of many of our services as possible to an online delivery. It is a proud moment.

Councillor Darren Langton, Digital Champion


You can find our website at nottinghamshire.gov.uk and if you’d like to leave feedback you can do so through this survey.

To keep up to date with Digital First work and to find out about opportunities to get involved in usability testing, sign up to emailme.

Championing digital opportunities

I’m lucky that my passion for representing the interests of local people and for digital technology are the perfect combination for my job as Councillor and Digital First champion.

As a lead Councillor I help raise awareness about digital opportunities with both local people and County Councillors. During the life of our Digital First project, I will be ensuring that the voice of local people – both those who are technology-savvy and those who are not – is at the heart of digital improvements.

I’ve realised myself that technology is only an enabler – the key thing is to ensure that people have a positive experience of online information and transactions provided by our Council, so that digital services enhance and improve people’s lives. It’s about making things easier!

Perhaps councils and councillors are not best known for an amazing use of digital technology and we do have a lot to prove here in Nottinghamshire , so you will need to bear with us until we have transformed the foundations of all our digital services – our main website.

This work is well underway and it’s been fascinating to see the feedback we’ve received, and the results of testing, put into practice on our Beta website. Feedback and testing shapes everything from the structure, navigation, content and design and building openly allows us to work out how best to deliver our online digital services for our customers .

Keep checking this blog to see how we are doing. In the meantime, if you have a thoughts about our Digital First project then don’t hesitate contact me or email me at Darren.langton@nottscc.gov.uk.

Posted by Councillor Darren Langton

What are words worth?

Those of a certain age may recall the song ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ by American new wave band Tom Tom Club. Although I’ve defined Tom Tom Club as new wave, the track itself was less genre specific, challenging the perceptions of its early ’80’s audience with a heavy rap and funky disco influence.

Lyrically it also presents a challenge, especially if you overlook the rhyme and dexterity of Tina Weymouth’s vocal and actually begin to think about what she’s saying:
“What are words worth?” is the oft-repeated refrain. As a line in a song it’s easily overlooked but taken in context with the rest of the lyric and given some real thought you’re left thinking, well, what are words worth? What are words really worth?

It’s a question we in the digital team at Nottinghamshire County Council are continually asking ourselves as we develop content in the new website and it’s a thought process that, as I found the other day, can get the grey cells ticking over at the most unexpected of times.

Out for a lunchtime walk in the sunshine, I passed a cake shop (yes, colleagues, you read that right, I passed a cake shop!) with a small notice pinned in the window ‘Back in 30 minutes. Out on a delivery.’

My immediate thought was that the two sentences were the wrong way round. In my head the natural order began with the ‘where’ rather than the ‘when.’ But my digitised self then took over and quickly rationalised the thought process. What is it that the consumer (user) wants to know? The shop is closed, so what is most important to them? Is it the fact that the owner is out on a delivery, or is it the knowledge that the shop will be open again in 30 minutes?

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the proprietor’s efforts to be helpful where immediately undone by the lack of an indicated start time to the 30 minute timeframe, the realisation was that the wording on the note, or in this case, more specifically, the order of the wording, was correct. Had I been visiting the shop, I would have wanted to know when it was reopening. I didn’t really care why it was closed. So, the order was right, but the ‘Missing words’ (“It just don’t make sense, the way you did the things you did” – there I go again, showing my age with musical references from my childhood) meant that unfortunately the shop ultimately failed its user test.

And it’s that way of thinking we’re continually engaged in as we review and rewrite content. We’re questioning each and every word, the way in which the words are phrased, the order in which they’re written, what’s needed and what’s not, all with the ultimate aim of enhancing the user experience and making the site as easy to use as possible. Is there a value to using the word? Is it the right word? Does including it make the overall content easier to understand?

“Hurried words, sensible words, words that tell the truth, cursed words, lying words, words that are missing the fruit of the mind”, sings Ms Weymouth (in French – more creativity in word usage!) as the song continues to provide the English semantics students amongst us with much to ponder.

Our aim at Nottinghamshire County Council is to build a website which provides that fruit and feeds the mind, leaving the user with a nutritional experience. That, to us, is what words are worth.

Posted by Andy Lowe, Senior Digital Officer.

The GIF that keeps on giving

When people ask me “What’s a GIF?” I often end up shouting/singing “It’s Peanut Butter Jelly TIME!”

Geeks like me will remember this adored GIF from about a hundred years ago, it did the rounds on sites like MySpace (ask your parents kids), Reddit and Tumblr.

Peanut butter gif

GIFs are a series of still images compressed into a single file. The file then plays as a short animation made up of those single, still images. Think of a GIF as a high tech flip book.

The GIF format has been around since 1987, early users of the World Wide Web used the format to add movement and interest to web pages. GIFs were often used on pages to display errors, buttons or if a page was under construction.

Under Construction gif

As technology, web design and the internet evolved GIFs soon fell out of fashion, the use of GIFs on webpages soon became outdated. Social media would be the only saviour for this format. The GIF had to evolve from just a moving image to a medium for communicating feelings, moods and movements.

The Rebirth of the GIF Format

Users of Myspace and Tumblr started to use GIFs to reflect moods or make statements. GIFs were soon paired with everyday statements, questions and funny sayings. This type of post was often relatable and sharable.

Loki reaction gif

GIFs are now used on nearly all social media platforms and are commonly used by marketers to help add a bit of humour and personality to campaigns. GIFs aren’t just for fun though; they can be used to promote products, increase brand awareness, as tutorials or to show your company’s culture.

Emoji gif

Using GIFs at Nottinghamshire County Council

I decided to make a GIF to promote a children’s pop-up theatre play showing in Nottinghamshire libraries, ‘The Boy and a Bear in a Boat’.

The microsite we created for this play features a moving image. I wanted to recreate this in GIF format for our social media channels.

I used Photoshop Elements to create the GIF. First I created a new image, ensuring that the canvas was transparent. I then added the waves and the image of the boy and the bear. I wanted the GIF to move, so it looked like the characters were out at sea.

To do this I created multiple layers of the same image and moved each layer in a different direction. The end result was a single Photoshop file with multiple layers; each layer contained a slightly different image – like a flip book!

I then saved the file as a GIF and the result was a moving image – Success! The whole process took about 1 hour but with practice I could halve this.

Here is the result:

Boy Bear Boat gif

I used this GIF on Twitter and Facebook to help promote the upcoming play. A GIF works perfectly with this campaign as the whole idea of a children’s pop-up theatre is fun!

I have used the GIF twice on Twitter with good results. We gained more retweets when using this GIF compared to previous tweets using just an image.

Yesterday Twitter also introduced a new auto-play feature, this means GIFs and videos now play automatically when a user scrolls through their feed. This means more users should now see moving GIFs increasing the chance of improving engagement.

Twitter autoplay video

We are planning to continue creating and using GIFs on our social media channels. It can be a great way to use a backlog of images and can help add personality to campaigns.

Posted by Yasmin Newell, Digital Content Officer

A problem with behaviour OR Usability informing your content

Post-It notes on piece of paperWe blogged back in April about our work in usability testing which helped to shape the design of our beta site that you can see here: beta.nottinghamshire.gov.uk.

Our testing hasn’t stopped. We’re collecting user feedback which we’re implementing into future iterations of the site. The site is being developed for the people of Nottinghamshire and this blog post shows how their views are shaping the site in terms of usability and testing. Sometimes we think we know the correct label due to gut feeling. However, as we found out recently, you can’t beat a bit of good old fashioned consensus and testing.

As a Senior Digital Officer at the Council (and having worked across many different websites) I tend to think that I know what people want or expect to find behind a link, a button or a title on a page.

We were working on the Adoption content and were looking at what you might title the page on the process of adoption. ‘Adoption Process was my first instinct. Next I asked my peers what they thought it should be – and from there we formed a clear opinion of what it should be titled. This, however, is not the ending.

We have a clear process for these things within the Digital First team and that is why we always test assumptions. Sometimes assumptions on how people will navigate a site can be right, but it is often valuable to remove yourself from the process and find out what real users think. The website is after all being built for the people of Nottingham and not just the Council.

We decided to test out our assumption about the page title through a simple process, but one that was invaluable and has informed some of our user testing and decision making on additional elements of the website content.

We simply wrote down three choices on a post it note and sat in an area of the Council with high footfall. Post it notes in hand, I asked people under which heading they would expect to find out about the process of adopting. The three choices were:

  • Steps to adoption
  • How to adopt
  • I want to adopt.

Sitting there, I thought I knew that everyone would choose the right one in ‘How to adopt’ which of course is the best heading for this type of content. Wrong!

Out of all the people surveyed, they picked the heading that I thought no-one would choose which was ‘I want to adopt’. Not only this, but they also gave informed reasons without prompting as to why they would choose this heading to find the information provided. The distilling of this feedback was down to people having considered all of the information prior to adoption and now they want to physically go through the process of adoption and would expect to find the information on what to do next within this area.

Additionally, and most interestingly, one of the people I surveyed had previous experience of our adoption process having already adopted a child in Nottinghamshire (I didn’t know this until after I had surveyed them) and they chose the header of ‘I want to adopt’ also.

It just goes to show that you can sometimes rely too heavily on your opinion and experience, but it’s the people who use these tools that can surprise you with the answers they give and how they use the tools you’ve provided them.

Posted by Paul Roper, Senior Digital Officer