First steps in design

We blogged recently about the usability testing we’d undertaken on three design concepts with The Insight Lab detailing the methodology and headline results. Here’s some more detail about the three prototypes we put to the test.

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An integral part of Digital first involves developing a new nottinghamshire.gov.uk. With this new version of our website we want to design something that looks good, works well across a range of devices and most importantly, is incredibly simple to use.

A local authority website is a container for a vast amount of information about diverse services which often have little relation to each other aside from the organisation delivering them. With more content and transactions moving to digital services, we set out to design an experience that lets the user concentrate on the task at hand, and giving them access to other content when relevant while getting everything else out of their way.

A website with so many pages needs many interface elements in order to help the user navigate round it all. Things like a main menu, a breadcrumb trail, a list of pages related to the content you’re looking at, a list of pages that are commonly accessed across the site, and many more!

We wanted to ensure our new website had everything the user needed, but remained simple and didn’t become overly complex, so we set about discovering which of these interface elements and design features our users found more useful and which ones were cluttering their experience.

Designing three concepts

We decided to develop three initial concept designs, all which could be used for the new nottinghamshire.gov.uk, but all were different in particular ways.

Each design had similar interface elements, but they would be shown in different places or interacted with in different ways. This was so that we could begin to understand what was so simple to a user it could be used without them having to think about it, what was too complex, or in the worst case scenario, prevented the user from completing their task.

We also wanted to design a site that was engaging, pleasing on the eye and conveyed not just our Digital Design Philosophy, but the character and feel of Nottinghamshire as a county.

We could then test how people interacted with each site, and discover how they used (or didn’t use) certain interface elements to navigate the site and complete the task they had come to do.

Design One – The “Contemporary” design

Screenshot of design concept homepage

This design was influenced by current local authority websites, and built to emulate the type of interface people would expect to see when arriving on a council website.

This included interface elements such as top tasks, search box, a top level navigation menu and positioning content in a traditional, vertically stacked page.

We included additional information about events and news in a big, clear way in an attempt to showcase content the user may not have intended to view when they first arrived, but may find useful (but still doing this without getting in their way!).

We positioned these elements in the lower half of the screen, “below the fold”, so that they could access it if they came across it, but so that it didn’t interfere with the task they had come to complete.

This concept was designed to look colourful, big and bold, with clear, large typography used to group related links.

We saw this design as an evolution of our existing site in terms of look, feel and user experience.

Design Two – The “Modern” design

Design concept screenshotThis design took on a slightly more modern interface and used horizontal columns to showcase different types of content simultaneously.

This design was built to fill the screen of the visitor’s browser, abandoning the traditional fixed width centre column design, allowing visitors on high resolution/large devices to have a more optimal experience.

As the screen width decreases, the columns can slide and expand horizontally, similar to how modern smartphone applications (for example Twitter) work, reducing the need for users to scroll down the page to consume content.

The two right hand columns serve secondary and tertiary content across all pages, so no matter where the visitor arrives on the website, they will always have access to over-arching elements.

This was an interesting point with this design – keeping a similarity between content pages and the homepage. We often found council websites had a homepage with lots of engaging and useful content, but that moving onto a specific page would remove those broader elements (such as news and events). And with more and more of our visitors arriving directly on content pages from Google, we wanted to explore the opportunity of showcasing this content from all pages, regardless of where they started their journey.

This design also explored moving the footer to the right hand side of the screen, again, using sliding panels to expose the content. We initially set this element to be a thin border, which would expand when interacted with by the user.

We also used icons to symbolise links to our social media channels, as well as contact details and address information.  We wanted to test whether icons alone would be enough of a prompt for users to find information, for example, an envelope to signify contact us, or the letter I to signify information.

Interestingly, icons that represented brands that visitors were very familiar with, for example Facebook, worked on their own but icons we had used exclusively, such as the envelope did not successfully prompt the user to interact with that element when looking to contact us.

Design Three – The “Clean” design

Design concept homepage screenshotThis design was the most simplistic of them all. We wanted to explore just how simple we could make our website before it started to have a negative impact on the visitor.

In this design, we removed all additional content from the interface, such as news and events and focused purely on the task the user had come to complete.

The homepage lists popular tasks and online services, alongside a navigational structure that lets the visitor browse the site from left to right (again using horizontal columns) in a directory structure similar to GOV.UK.

Content pages were also very simple, and only showed visitor content relevant to that section rather than content from a broader section of our website.

This particular design didn’t allow for much opportunity to engage with the user, in terms of broader Council content and while we recognised that this was not ideal from a business perspective, it would be useful to see if this approach significantly improved the user experience for the visitor.

What we found

The findings from the user testing of these design concepts were very interesting, and confirmed some of our assumptions while completely disproving others.

The testing experience provided us with a wealth of data, helping us identify the key interface elements that we would put into the beta design and also helping us get a feel for what level of complexity users were most comfortable with.

The general findings showed us that users found design two to be too complex. While they did find it useful having access to broader content across all pages, they did get lost on the page, spending a longer amount of time looking around the page to find the next step in their journey.

Designs one and three were scored fairly similar, although the simplistic nature of the design three did require visitors to return to the homepage to start a new task, as there was no links between different types of content.

Subjective questioning also found design three to be too simple, and that people preferred the look and feel of the first design, perhaps because this had a more familiar feel to it compared to the current website.

We also found that when performing a specific task, providing relevant links to other content significantly helped users browse the site and complete further tasks, for example having a link to ‘events in half term’ on the school term time page.

Certain interface elements, such as popular links and related pages were used very frequently, whereas elements such as the search box and main menu were, surprisingly, used much less frequently.

What’s next?

The next step was to take what we had learnt from both the practical experience of designing these concepts and the user testing results to design the first version of our beta site.

This design is almost an amalgamation of the three design concepts, borrowing the strongest elements (and most successful as determined in the user testing) from each design, and rebuilding them into one design that will go live in our public beta test very soon.

Once this is live, we will continue to monitor user behaviour and iterate the design to continuously improve it, so that we can move closer to the version we replace our current website with later in the year.

The design process is allowing us to discover what really works, very quickly. With constant feedback and iterations, we are able to test ideas and challenge our own assumptions very quickly, helping us get closer to a site the residents of Nottinghamshire find highly usable and (perhaps!) enjoyable too.

Posted by Carl Bembridge, Digital Design Officer

6 thoughts on “First steps in design

  1. This is great! Forward thinking approach from a council and embracing transparency. Looking forward to following your journey Carl.

    • Great to hear you like the approach we’re taking and will be following our journey – we have a mailing list if you’d like to get notifications when we blog or about development of our (public) beta site over the summer. Being very user focused, doing loads of testing and working openly is bringing great benefits and insights to the project so far!

  2. Pingback: Moving to beta | Digital First Nottinghamshire

  3. Pingback: Iterative wireframing as part of user experience design | Sarah Lay

  4. Pingback: Iterative wireframing as part of user experience design – Sarah Lay | Public Sector Blogs

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