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)

Moving to Umbraco

Our first workstream in the Digital First Project, to ‘review technical infrastructure, systems and support’, has now completed and we’re making the move to Umbraco as our main content management system.

Having considered the options for the Content Management System (CMS), it was agreed that an open source solution was the most appropriate choice and several possible CMS solutions were considered and evaluated.

Criteria ranged from compatibility with the existing technical platforms and technical strategy of the Council and ease of integration to back-end systems, through to the related active user group community, ease of product use, and the responsive capability of the product. Key was also that the CMS was  “device agnostic”, key in order to deliver the corporate priorities deliverables, channel shift and workforce mobilisation.

We looked also at how flexible a CMS could be around design and both the front-end and content authoring user experience.

Umbraco was selected from this process which is an open-source CMS and will be the tool with which to base the development of the content of the new public website and related microsites and extranets. As other workstreams in Digital First move on we’ll look at whether Umbraco plays a part in other sites as well.

Alongside using Umbraco as the content management system the Council is looking at systems to support transactional delivery. These include products from the Firmstep suite:

  • AchieveForms – an e-forms solution
  • AchieveSelf – for customer accounts
  • AchieveService – customer relationship management module.

The Umbraco CMS is hosted on a new dedicated VMware server based ICT platform situated at both Nottinghamshire County Council data centres.

The Umbraco ICT platform design utilises the VMware technology to ensure service continuity / high availability by constantly replicating the content of the web servers across both sites so that they are always synchronised. They are accessed through a load balancer so that each is accessible and without the need to resort to complex configuration changes should either become inaccessible for any reason.

Service continuity / high availability is further enhanced through SolarWinds monitoring which will automatically notify our support teams of any outages or actions which VMware will have taken to maintain the service thus enabling a quick and appropriate response.

The new platform has both test and production environments and our content authors can draft and publish directly to the web by through status control in the production environment.

Additionally there is a development environment on which to develop and test more major / high impact system changes such as overall the structure of the website.

While workstream one will now be closed down within the project ICT involvement will remain high across the other areas.

Posted by Toni Tedder, Senior Project Manager in ICT Business Change and Engagement.

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We’re pleased to be involved in the Umbraco in Local Government User Group and to be hosting the next meeting of the group. Dates to be confirmed so keep an eye on the blog!

You can find a group on KHub to discuss the use of this CMS in local government (log in required).

LocalGov Digital gathered some comparison information about different CMS in use in local government and you can find this, or add your comments, here.

Card sorting: working out how to navigate our services online

Card sortingOne of the challenges we’re tackling as we build a new user-centred nottinghamshire.gov.uk is how to organise access to, and information about, our services.

We’re doing research on how people find their way to our website, if or how they move around it once they’re there, and how we can make our navigation intuitive to support their behaviour. We’ve delved into taxonomies and are investigating both on-site and external search. We’ve used data, analytics and undertaken user research too.

One of the activities we’ve carried out as part of this discovery is holding open card-sorting workshops with a range of our users. We contracted The Insight Lab to carry out this work with us and below their Head of Research, Dr Emily Webber, reveals the why, what and how of card sort workshops.

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When The Insight Lab first connected with Nottinghamshire County Council, they were looking for a user experience consultancy to run a series of card-sorting workshops, to help inform the re-development of the content structure of nottinghamshire.gov.uk, as part of their Digital First project.

Card-sorting is a simple but incredibly effective way of obtaining valuable insight into the ways in which different types of users’ group information and content in order to inform the design of information architecture (IA) where information is structured intuitively, meaning that users can quickly and easily find what they are looking for.

cards on tableThere are a variety of card sorting techniques which can be used for this purpose, but for this project, we decided on open card-sort approach. This requires users to sort cards containing website content into groups that make sense to them, and give each group a title that summarises the cards that sit within it. Findings from this process then feed into further research and validation methods, and form a great foundation of evidence for a user-centred site structure, which meets the expectations of those using it.

We were really excited to take on this project particularly due to some of the unique challenges that it presented, such as the diverse range of users that the website must cater for, and the large and varied amounts of content to be presented. Participants for the workshops were therefore recruited from across the county (we ran workshops across Nottinghamshire from Worksop to West Bridgford) and came from a range of backgrounds and levels of computer experience. Content for the card sort was carefully selected to reflect the varied types of information and plethora of services available.

Following an audit of current content and consideration of existing documentation, such as priorities and key user journeys, 61 cards formed the basis of the card sort. During the workshop, each participant first sorted these cards (which had a title printed on one side, and a description of the content of the other) into groups that made sense to them, and then gave each group a heading using a Post-It note. For example, a participant may have grouped cards such as ‘Studying’ and ‘Apply for a School Place’ under a heading which they titled ‘Education’ or ‘Schools’.

Participants were also encouraged to indicate any sub-groupings, as well as any cards they felt fell into more than one category (more Post-Its!),– for example ‘Report a Pothole’ may have been grouped under a transport heading, but then also linked to a ‘Report a problem’ group.

Although this data alone provides valuable insight into a user-focused IA, we wanted to provide further support for the findings using rich, in-depth feedback from participants. Following the individual card sorts, participants were therefore led in an open discussion, exploring points such as what they had found particularly difficult or easy to sort, cards which they felt were missing and issues with labeling and understanding, for example.

Card layoutResults from the card sort were then supplemented with points arising from the post-sort discussion to provide rich insight and outline actionable recommendations for the creation of a user-focused site IA.

The card-sorting workshops have proved an invaluable exercise in gaining insight into how Nottinghamshire residents perceive Council services, and how they understand and group content. The results will provide an excellent base for future work into the re-development of the Council website and its underlying information architecture.

Research methods including closed-card sorts and tree testing could be used to provide additional insight to support and extend the findings of these initial workshops, with results from all sources then feeding into a new user-focused Council website, where visitors can quickly and easily find the information they are looking for.

Dr Emily Webber is Head of Research at The Insight Lab, an expert-led consultancy, implementing user-focused research methods to drive the design of digital products and services that are simple, efficient and a pleasure to use. Find out more about them on their website.

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We’re looking at what our next step is now to design a clear information architecture for our website and we’ll update you on this as we do it!

Thanks to all who took part in the workshops. If you’d like to get involved with testing as part of our Digital First work then you can find out more here.

Collaboration and sharing through Pipeline

We’ve joined LocalGov Digital’s Pipeline network to share the work we’re doing and look for opportunities to join up with other councils and public sector bodies to collaborate on digital work.

LocalGov Digital, the network for digital excellence in the sector, has created Pipeline to improve the way councils communicate with each other on what they’re working on, or thinking about doing, to increase collaboration in the sector and reduce duplication.

We’ve already added our work around high level personas which we’re developing as part of our user research work, as well as details of our website rebuild. We’ll be adding more projects as we get going on building digital services for the new nottinghamshire.gov.uk over the next few weeks.

We’ve also joined projects posted by other councils such as the Care Act assessment forms and election results dashboard listed by West Berkshire Council. We’re already doing work, or have a system we can share, for these pieces of work and as we’re adopting a ‘digital by design, open by default’ approach sharing fits well with our Digital First approach.

We’re looking forward to seeing more projects being listed – there are already around 80 organisations and more than 30 projects on the network – as well as being able to share and improve our work by being more closely linked with other councils.

You can take a look at Pipeline here and we’d love to hear what you think of us being a part of it or how you think we can get even more benefit for Nottinghamshire by collaborating with others – http://pipeline.localgovdigital.info.

Posted by Sarah Lay – Senior Digital Officer. Sarah is also Communications and Community Management Lead for LocalGov Digital