Digital – the next frontier?

It all feels a bit like Star Trek’s famous split infinitive but we now need to push on into new digital territories!

We have successfully built the digital foundations that can deliver transformation across the Council – a new, vastly improved website, redesigned microsites, a refreshed schools portal and implemented a social media strategy. A beta version of our new intranet is also being built and should go live in the next few weeks. So what is the next frontier?

While we have undoubtedly improved the customer experience, regained control and visibility of our social media and established a solid platform, we have still not fully delivered the much-heralded savings that are often attached to digital transformation.

This is a point in the development that many others have reached; it is also a point that many get stuck due to the different challenges the next phase brings.

What makes me hopeful that we will make the necessary progress is the fact that all the achievements to date have been delivered by an excellent in-house digital team that we have built that has worked closely with ICT and Customer Service teams. If we had gone external in terms of delivery, I don’t think we would have developed the skills, knowledge or relationships that would all us to get us to the next level.

That said, while all the existing skills remain relevant and needed, I think that the next phase will also involve a different set of skills. This is because we will now need to push into territory that is normally fiercely protected – the area of service redesign. Anyone who has ever worked in local authorities will know that this is a step not taken lightly but there is no choice if we are to start seeing the true potential of digital. It is not about putting the existing process online, nor is it about optimising the current process and then putting it online. It is about designing a journey from scratch with a digital mind-set from the outset. That is not to say that offline elements of the journey don’t need to be considered – they absolutely do, but they can’t be the driving force. Also an offline option needs to be integrated into any design to make sure that those unable to use the online solution are not left behind.

The culture and management structure means that to get into this area – the heart of the Council – will take political manoeuvring, the leveraging of influence, keen project management skills and a dollop of luck for good measure. Oh, and if I am going to continue the Star Trek theme, a fully loaded space-age taser set to stun!

Taking this blog back to reality, I am fortunate enough to have a place on our Corporate Leadership Team which provides the perfect platform to help navigate through the many challenges and natural resistance. Anyone setting out on a Phase II digital project that involves going into service areas will need a sponsor at the highest level – preferably the Chief Executive – if they are going to succeed.

We are identifying all of those customer journeys that would deliver savings by being optimised for a self-service, online delivery. This will often mean replacing a labour intensive process with an automated process. It will meet resistance. (Note to Editor: resist using the Star Trek phrase “resistance is futile”) The first journeys are likely to be the most difficult. Early wins will be critical.

Where’s Captain Kirk when you need him!

Posted by Martin Done, Communications and Marketing Director

Collecting feedback and improving user experience

We described back in June how we were testing and using feedback to inform the content on the site in its beta stage.

This has continued post launch. We’ve been gathering comments from customer service staff, services and website users. Nottinghamshire.gov.uk features a short survey (only four questions) asking users what they came to the site to do and whether they found what they’re looking for.

Despite our careful proofing before publishing pages, this feedback has highlighted some ‘quick fixes’ such as spelling errors and broken links, as well as more substantial suggestions on the site design and navigation. We’re logging all comments on Trello, assigning them to team members to action and archiving them when complete.

We’ve also been using HotJar – a (paid-for) tool that measures user behaviour – to monitor how the pages are being used. From the heat maps it provides, we can see the most popular areas of a page and how users are scrolling and clicking through the site.

Hotjar screenshot

One example of how I’ve used this information is on the Rufford Abbey and Sherwood Forest Country Parks pages, where I could see that viewing the car parking charges was a hot area of activity. Although they were in a prominent position on the page, the information was only available as a PDF download. When I needed to create a new page for the parks’ festive opening hours, this gave me an opportunity to improve this content and create calendar views for car parking charges.

I’ve also been using the HotJar recordings to see how users are using our what’s on/events listings. Being able to see how users on different devices and browsers are navigating this section of the site has allowed our team to make improvements, such as reducing the default number of events shown when browsing on mobile to reduce the scrolling length.

These HotJar tools do have limitations; you can’t interact with the user or ask any follow up questions as you can when user testing in person. However, there’s also less chance that you will influence their behaviour. For our team, it has been an effective method to gather a significant amount of data about users’ actions and opinions of the website, which we are using to improve the overall user experience.

Posted by Lucy Pickering, Digital Content Officer

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

Moving to beta

Screenshot of beta website homepageOur work to move to a new nottinghamshire.gov.uk is at an exciting stage – we’re going into public beta.

We’ve been working on understanding user and organisational needs, and whether the content we have on the current site meets these. And we’ve been prototyping and testing (interaction and visual) design. Behind all this we’ve been learning to live our Digital First principles and ethos and preparing the technology we need to move the site forward.

Moving to public beta means we’re now ready to share this work – still at an early stage – more widely so we can begin to gather feedback and iterate as we continue with the build over the next few months.

What do we mean by beta?

We’ve defined what we mean when we say beta along the lines of the Government Digital Service definition. We’re using it to mean: “a web page, service or site is still in a testing phase and is a developing prototype going through testing and rapid iterations.”

The beta we’re putting public now is still very much a prototype and we’ll be aiming to, in the words of the Government Digital Service,  “build a fully working prototype which you test with users. (…) continuously improve on the prototype until it’s ready to go live, replacing or integrating with any existing services.” In our case this means preparing content and improved (appropriate) transactional capability across the Council’s 500 services.

Our beta is very small right now – the start of a structure, a few areas of content, little integration with other systems – but we’ll be building on this over the next couple of months. It will run in parallel with our current website (this remains the official digital channel of the Council for now) as we transition services over during the summer ahead of a full go live with the new site in September.

Why make it public?

Both our digital design philosophy and principles describe how we want to work openly and with our customers.

Putting the beta live now may well show up things that don’t work or could work better – and that’s great! We’d rather know about that stuff and work on it more before the beta transitions to be the official website of the Council.

How long did it take?

We moved into private alpha at the start of the year after implementing Umbraco and completing initial work on our content inventory.

Much of the work on beta has happened in a couple of sprints over the last month. The first covered the usability testing on the three design concepts and analysing the results while the second covered a fast build based on what we learnt.

Last week we went into private beta, sharing the site with stakeholders and Council staff.

The site will remain in public beta until September when it becomes the official Council website.

What’s different from the current site?

Lots!

The beta site is responsive and optimised for use on different devices. We’ve thought not only about how the site displays and the priority of content on devices but also about user behaviour on these devices (touch navigation, for example) and the context of visits.

Our design prototype testing explored what sort of information architecture works best for our customers and we’re building a mixed navigation of both container and tagged content (hat tip to GOV.UK here for inspiration on designing this interaction).

We’ve kept the ‘top tasks’ style prioritisation on the homepage but in order to move people more quickly to the right content and this will work dynamically in time to reflect activity on the site at a given time. But recognising that most of our visitors come straight to a deeper content page from an external search engine we’ve designed a path through the hierarchy that makes the least stops on the way to where people need to be, while still signposting clearly. You can check this out through the ‘browse this website’ tab on the tasks box on the beta homepage.

We’ve prioritised the customer need on each of the page by getting site furniture out of the way as much as possible and making content as focused as possible by telling people what they want to know as clearly and concisely as we can (still lots of work to do on content though!).

But we’ve also recognised there is organisation needs to be met, and that the Council isn’t only a service provider but a part of the local community. This means we’re trying out a chunky footer on each page that brings in news, events and social content. Common ‘homepage’ features that people don’t see when they land deeper in the site by using ‘Google as the homepage’. We need to explore this idea further to see if the chunky footer works for user and organisation but we’d like this to be contextual in the future – so the news, events, social and democratic content you see is directly related to the service content above.

These are just a few of the changes we’ve made so far but there’s lots more to come. We’re all really excited to learn more about how people use the site and what works (and what doesn’t)!

What happens next?

We’re encouraging people to try out the beta and provide feedback. To help with this we’re using Google Analytics but also Hotjar – capturing mouse patters and generating heatmaps as well as gathering qualitative data through a short survey. The survey appears shortly after you land on our site or you can find it here.

We’ll be taking what we learn from this and over the next few months we’ll be transitioning from the current site to the beta being the official channel so we’ll be signposting from one to the other in preparation for that. We’ll also be continuing to work with customers, services and our other access channels as part of this work.

There is a lot more work to do to add in functionality that will allow the site to work in the ways our customers expect, integrate with our transactional services and get the content to the standard we’re looking for.

We don’t expect the new nottinghamshire.gov.uk will look exactly like our beta does currently when it goes live in September – visual design, interaction design and content will all change over the summer with more work by the team based on evidence of usage patterns and usability testing.

For now – we’re just asking you to give it a go and we looking forward to hearing what you think!

Some things to try on the beta:

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Sign up for the latest updates on our Digital First progress through emailme.

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

Content creation and migration

Anyone who’s ever re-built a large website will share with you the pain of migration. They’ll tell you it takes longer than you think it will, that what you’re trying to move seems to expand at a faster rate than you’re able to lift and shift. They’ll probably admit that something always gets left behind. Migration is not a task that anyone enters into lightly.

So what if you plan not to migrate in the sense of a move of pages from old to new websites, but to create all new content instead? The task is just as imposing but with a different set of challenges.

That’s the way we’re looking at content for nottinghamshire.gov.uk as we head toward a new version of the site. That we first of all need to understand better the purpose of any content, get to know its performance and then plan its future.

This begins with taking the next step with our content inventory. As mentioned in a previous post our current site has more than 25,000 pages. That’s a huge amount of content to try and understand what to do with, especially as we need to maintain it while we’re rebuilding it.

So, the team has been tackling maintenance and migration in shifts. We’ve divided into two groups who, for a fortnight at a time, focus either on that maintenance of the current content or on understanding and planning for what happens to that content as we move. It’s a somewhat experimental way of handling the tasks within the capacity, borrowing some language and pace from Agile methodologies, iterating the process as we go and find more about what works and what doesn’t.

The first two runs at migration work have seen the two groups doing discovery work on the content. There’s been lots of conversations with services about the purpose of the content from an organisational view, a strategic view and of course from a customer’s view.

This insight into why the customer needs each piece of content, and what they want from it, has been particularly interesting to understand. It’s been the hardest for lots of services to articulate, not because they don’t think or know their customer, but because the established way of looking at things is from the insight out. They’re just not practiced in turning that view around.

It’s led to the creation of user stories (another borrowed Agile tool) and starting to see which bits of our current content can go, which can be consolidated, which need to stay.

In the next phase of migration we’ll be starting to create the new content in the new site. We want to improve the quality of content on the site but with a team of us working on building it we also need to be mindful of consistency. To help with this we’ve created a few resources.

These form part of our Global Experience Language, but at it’s most operational level: a design manual.

For this we’ve created our content ethos (part of a set which set out clearly our approach to the form which create our website), a content standard and a style guide. We’ve not re-invented the wheel but taken good practice from existing resources such as the Government Digital Service design manual and LocalGov Digital’s content standard.

View or download our content ethos here – Content ethos (Word)

The content standard builds on the ethos to set out clearly our approach and reflects the sort of conversations we’re having with services about their information. You can view or download our content standard here – Content Standard (Word)

The style guide is a practical tool, a reference that the Digital Content Officers can use to help with consistency and keeping language clear. We’ve taken a lot from Government Digital Service on this, from the research they have done on customer-centric language. You can view or download our style guide here – Style Guide and content creation guidance (Word)

Content creation for the new website gets underway in earnest in the next few weeks and we’ll be testing these tools in the process of doing so, as well as from what comes out of usability testing what we build. But this is our starting point – the first operational guides in Nottinghamshire County Council’s design manual.

Posted by Sarah Lay, Senior Digital Officer