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)

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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.

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