Welcome to The Perfect Curve.

There are 141 posts in total.

Wimbledon

simon gray - 2015-06-30, 21:25:01
It's all very well is the tennis at Wimbledon but it's a bit artificial - when can we see some real tennis rather than pretend tennis? [...]

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General Election 2015

simon gray - 2015-05-08, 08:35:30

So here's my analysis of what happened the last couple of days:

First of all, there's no point blaming the people who didn't vote (and by extension, blaming the demographic of young people who didn't vote) for the Tories winning. as with anything where the decisions are made by the people who bother to turn up to decide, elections are won by the people who bother to turn up to vote. Nobody has any idea how the people who didn't vote would have voted had they voted - that's the point of them not voting, they didn't vote because there was nobody they wanted to vote for. One can't assume they'd have all voted Labour, just as you can't assume they'd instead have all voted Tory, Libdem, Green, UKIP, or Christian Peoples' Alliance (Proclaiming Christ's Lordship). They could have voted to entrench a Tory majority even further as likely as they could have voted to bring about a Labour government.

There's also no point blaming the Tory newspapers - whilst its true that newspapers form an essential part in forming opinion, ultimately newspapers are in the sales business; they know that if they present opinion which veers too far away from the opinion of their customer base, their customers will leave for an alternative product. The other reason why there's no point blaming the Tory newspapers is people don't read newspapers at anything like the level they used to - and of course, us in the social media advocacy world have spent [...]

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www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Thinking a bit further ahead

simon gray - 2013-11-28, 17:05:14

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

Our primary focus for this project is on delivering an improved website in 2014 which will meet the needs of users and ourselves for the next few years, and which will be scalable and extensible for the few years again beyond that.

Whilst the world of the internet is still a fast-moving world, there’s no denying that the world of the local government internet is…

…a little slower! When dealing with technological changes, in most organisations which are relatively small or on which the organisation’s whole business model is predicated on the technology for service delivery it’s relatively easy for them to quickly embrace change and innovation and incorporate it into the business. But in local government, whilst its easy for webteams who live and breath internet technology as part of their working days to get excited about emerging technologies, inevitably the transport planners, the road safety officers, the social workers, the swimming pool lifeguards, the bin collectors, and the parks attendants who deliver the overwhelming majority of council services will by [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - To feature or not to feature? Where information turns out to be not as important to citizens as we expect it to be!

simon gray - 2013-11-06, 16:28:50

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

For many working in some form of communications function in local government, winter is our favourite time of year. Why, you may ask? One word:

Gritting!

We love gritting in local government communications – it’s the nearest we get to taking part in the excitement of 24 hour rolling news coverage; eyes are constantly tuned to the Met Office hourly forecast to see what the temperature’s doing, ready to push out to the Twitter Gritters the notice that the wagons are going out to treat the roads. And most council websites naturally have a prominent link to the gritting information on the home page, because it’s important, and therefore popular, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Like most councils, ever since I remember we’ve every winter put a link to our gritting information on the home page, and for the last couple of years since we’ve had the current version of the home page, in the ‘most important’ popular pages section (our place for top tasks) in the left hand third of the upper half of the page. [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - To feature or not to feature? Where information turns out to be not as important to citizens as we expect it to be!.

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - A usability review of council websites

simon gray - 2013-10-31, 11:31:44

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

We of course have our own ideas about what makes a council website usable – and part of the point of sharing the work in progress of this project here is to test if our ideas are shared by our citizens and our industry peers. But it’s always best practice not just to rely on one’s own generalist expertise and one’s own individual consultation work, but to also engage the advice of independent specialist experts, to either verify your own findings or alternatively shed light on where your own proximity to a project might be skewing the results in favour of what you might want them to be – this process is sometimes known as red teaming.

To that end, we commissioned some independent usability experts from AbilityNet to do some work on our behalf – a quantitative benchmarking exercise of a number of other council websites, and a qualitative focus group exercise looking at our current website together with our plans for the next one.

To summarise a definition of what ‘usability’ [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

The C Word

simon gray - 2013-10-14, 17:07:46

Over the last week or two at work I've actually started being a little bit naughty.

The webteam in Birmingham here, like many council webteams, sits within the Customer Services division of the council, rather than within either Corporate Communications or IT, like in many other councils. This means the word which underpins all the work we do is the word 'customer'.

Being frank, I was never particularly happy about us being moved from comms to cs when it happened - as a person out on the street who buys things, my overwhelming experience and view of 'customer services' is they're the people you take a faulty product back to, who spend a lot of time trying to pursuade you it isn't faulty, or the people you complain about an intangible service to, who spend a lot of time telling you the majority of their customers think the service is just peachy. I, frankly, have never been happy about my job being associated with that sort of thing.

I've also never really liked this description of our website users as customers, but it's only in the last few weeks or so I've been able to really crystalise why I've never really liked it. The first reason is one which I've shared a lot in many arenas, and which underpins a lot of my discomfort with a number of current council website trends - customer services divisions of councils seem to have quite a skewed view of who their customers are, focusing on the people [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

I only ever use search, nobody uses menus, nobody scrolls down the page, it needs to fit on the screen

simon gray - 2013-08-29, 09:42:26

There have been many a time I’ve sat in a meeting or been at an event, and I’ve heard the phrase ‘I only ever use [x], nobody ever [y]s’ in the context of a discussion of user behaviour on the web.

It’s an attitude which is not just the bane of all local government web officers’ lives, but actually is the bane of all people who spending a significant amount of their time making things for the web, as opposed to just consuming things on the web.

When the person in front of you declares that they never use menus, that they only search, even their own personal description of their own behaviour can be suspect. All web users will have their default preferred strategies for navigating around a web site – but the point is different web users have different preferred strategies; some people will prefer to use a menu, some people prefer to start off with a search box, and some people will jump straight to the A-Z section, if one is present. It’s also the case that – whilst a casual user might lose patience and go elsewhere if their preferred method doesn’t work for them – a persistent user will fall back on one of the alternative methods available to them, especially if the alternatives are clearly visible.

Sometimes the same user will have different strategies depending on their knowledge of what they’re looking for – an expert user might know exactly what to type into the search box to find [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - The importance of Eccles cakes to channel shift, or the value of less important content for search visibility

simon gray - 2013-07-31, 14:20:12

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

In thinking about the future shapes of our council websites, we all of course understand the need to perform brutally honest ROTE analyses of every single page on our sites, and likewise we’re all geared up for restructuring our websites and the content in them according to properly thought through content strategies.

So we know we need to get rid of those pointless pages about stuff the council has nothing to do with such as the history of Birmingham’s canals, or the history and recipe behind Eccles cakes, right?

Not so fast!

Both of those pages – canals on our own website, and Eccles cakes on the website for Salford City Council, are both in the local history sections of the website, and whilst some people might suggest the responsibility of councils for the curation and dissemination of local history might be tenuous in the modern era, it still does remain a function of many council library services. So you might believe – as actually I did until relatively recently – that whilst this content belongs [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Current thinking about mobile device access of council websites

simon gray - 2013-06-20, 17:13:18

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

On 11 June 2013, Socitm – the national association of people working in the field of public sector online services – held an event to present their latest findings in the area of how people are using mobile devices to access council websites.

The headline fact that was revealed was that during the first five months of 2013, 27% of visits to council websites were from mobile devices – ie, 27% of the people looking at and doing things on council websites were by people using mobile phones and tablets, as opposed to on laptops and desktop computers.

Rubbish, leisure, and schools were the top three areas which people were more likely to look at on mobile rather than desktop, with libraries and housing following behind. Transport information, roads and streets, jobs, council tax, and planning also all featured high in the list of services accessed with a mobile device, but at roughly the same proportion as desktop users. The other usual high hitters were on the list as well, but interestingly parking – a [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - User testing customer journeys – it’s not just about the top tasks

simon gray - 2013-05-24, 15:38:23

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

When designing a new website, especially when proposing a radically new menu system (‘information architecture‘), it’s important to test with one’s potential users that the design and navigation proposed actually works.

There are many pairs of pliers in the usability tester’s toolbox to help them with this – card sorting exercises for navigation, eye tracking studies for layout, unstructured sessions with or without interviews to get a gut feeling for the level of success and/or to look out for potential problems outside the planned testing, and the setting of specific tasks to test participants to establish (a) if they can complete them at all, and (b) how easy it was for them, what their ‘customer journey’ through the site to task completion was.

The prevailing wisdom in the Local Government digital community, as pioneered by Socitm, is the Top Tasks Methodology – whereby using your access and search statistics you identify the 10 most frequently accessed tasks on your site, and optimise your home page and search engine optimisation around that. Socitm themselves with their [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Marketing campaigns on the home page

simon gray - 2013-02-20, 10:12:31

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

As well as the issue of images on the home page, another issue which has been the subject of a fair amount of internal discussion is the one of marketing campaigns on the home page.

Our current site – like almost every other council website in the country – has an area on the home page devoted marketing campaigns, such as where we promote our commercial property portfolio, advice about staying warm in winter, or information about public question time at full council meetings.

It’s part of the received wisdom of how a council website is constructed that the council has messages it needs to communicate to the public, and the place for it to communicate those messages is via the home page, because the home page is the most important page of the site, isn’t it?

We now challenge that received wisdom.

We have a number of evidential reasons to challenge the notion that the best place to market to our audience is via the home page, plus the consideration of what is the established marketing good [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Images of Birmingham on the home page

simon gray - 2013-02-13, 17:43:08

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

One of the issues which has caused a fair amount of discussion amongst colleagues internally is the matter of images of Birmingham on the home page.

There’s a strong view that as well as being a gateway to the services the website and the council as a whole offers, the home page should be used to market Birmingham the city, particularly by means of having pictures of Birmingham on the home page.

We’re not automatically opposed to this idea on principle – but we are indeed unsure about it as a direction to go in, partly because we want to ensure the home page is as focussed and uncluttered as possible, and partly because we don’t think people come to the council website with a particular interest in looking at pictures of the city; residents will already know what the city looks like, and visitors and potential visitors will always find a richer source of imagery of the city from sites such as Flickr.

There’s also the more pragmatic question of what images [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

The High Street is dying. Did The Internet kill it? No, it took its own life

simon gray - 2013-01-11, 08:35:28
It was another sad day for our town centres as it was announced, after going into administration a few days earlier, all 187 Jessops photography shops would shut at the end of the day, with the loss of 1,370 jobs.

Back 15 years ago, when I used to be considerably more into stills photography than I am now, Jessops on New Street in Birmingham was my favourite shop; they had knowledgeable staff, catered well for both digital and chemical photography, but best of all, they had a massive front window stacked up with a wide choice of second hand cameras, lenses, and other equipment, at a good choice of price ranges.

Then the New Street branch closed, to be replaced around the corner by the Jessops ‘World Camera Centre’, which curiously with a doubling of floorplate space had a fraction of the stock – and big second-hand front window being replaced by a small second-hand glass case.

More recently over the last year or so, whenever I’ve gone into the Jessops World Camera Centre I’ve found the customer experience incredibly frustrating. The print-it-yourself machines not working, the lack of basic stock available, the immense difficulty of attracting the attention of a shop assistant, and when that attention is finally attracted, the shop assistant not having the faintest idea what I’m talking about (“what’s a flash bracket?”), or the most usual response “oh, we don’t have any in stock right now – we’ll have to order one in”.

And it’s not just Jessops where [...]

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www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Project product map

simon gray - 2012-12-20, 15:54:26

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

As part of the iterative and agile process we’ll be working under, I’ve put together the first draft of our project map, identifying the various ‘products’ which will need to be developed as we go along:

As the project progresses we’ll be colouring those red boxes yellow and green, and adding more boxes along the trees, and of course adding new boxes and branches as new products are identified.

#localgovdigital #localgov

[...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Developing the sub-projects

simon gray - 2012-12-03, 18:05:21

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

In order to make this whole project manageable, we need to split it up into a number of (initially five) sub-projects, from which our agile / Scrum series of products will emerge.

The sub-projects can be broadly grouped into three categories – content strategy, infrastructure, and governance. So far we have these:

Information Architecture

This is how people will navigate through the site – not just by the menu structure, but also A-Z, related links, and search. It will be looking at how content fits into the six top levels, identifying where the possible points for confusion lay, and mitigating that possible confusion.

Content

Relating to Information Architecture, we need to perform a content audit of the existing site and determine what pages we will need on the new site – the first pass being to establish what each page will cover, with subsequent passes being to actually write the new content based on matching and amending existing content to bring it in line with new content guidelines – which also need to be [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Project outline, scope, goals, and outcomes

simon gray - 2012-09-14, 15:43:58

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here. This is the first post, which outlined what the project was actually about:

The Alpha project, inspired by the same methodology the central Government Digital Service has used as it redevelops https://www.gov.uk/ and Shropshire council’s Project WIP (http://shropshire.gov.uk/projectwip/), was conceived in March / April 2012 as a separate website on which we can develop and trial innovative developments in how we deliver services on birmingham.gov.uk in the future. Permission to proceed with the project was granted in early May, with the purchase order for the web hosting necessary for the work being sent to Service Birmingham on 7 June, with Service Birmingham delivering the development environment hosting on 4 July. Much of the background and preparatory work has been carried out over the course of time since summer 2011, including at various GovCamps, and work-in-earnest started on 12 September 2012.

Alpha has been conceived and designed from the ground up to facilitate an agile, iterative development process, allowing full consultation to take place and feedback to be received from key stakeholders – [...]

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011, and the best concert I’ve ever been to

simon gray - 2011-05-28, 18:10:24

It’s not my custom to publicly mourn the death of famous people; generally, it’s a thing other people do which makes me feel a bit icky – I didn’t know the famous person, and the famous person didn’t know me, so whilst it’s always sad when anybody dies it seems pointless to outpour grief for somebody one didn’t know and who didn’t know you.

I’m not going to break that habit and publicly mourn the sad death of Gil Scott-Heron, but instead I’m going to talk about the best concert I’ve ever been to in my 41 years of life, and what perhaps will remain the best concert I’ll ever have been to in what remains of my (hopefully at least another 41 years!) of life.

It’s a story I’ve told people in person more times than I care to count; there’s some people who’ve heard it more times than they’d care to count. I tend to present a fairly robotic, sentiment-free face to the world, but telling this story is one of only two (and you can read the other one on birmingham-alive!, if you want) which genuinely brings an emotional tear to my eye, rather than just my allergies to the many airborne particulates where I live.

I can’t quite remember if it was late 1989 or early 1990 (it was definitely that academic year, because I was in my second year as an undergraduate at Birmingham Conservatoire) that I went to a concert at the Birmingham Hummingbird. Myself and my best friend at the [...]

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Bullring Open Market, 1154-2010, R.I.P.

simon gray - 2010-08-31, 14:47:51

Today I officially pronounce the Bullring fruit and vegetable market to be dead.

It had a good innings – nobody can complain about a run of 856 years and it being curtailed; I remember when plans to demolish the 1960′s market and shopping centre area were being consulted on how most of the traders predicted the market wouldn’t survive, but – the soul having been ripped out of the place notwithstanding – most of the stalls made it through that redevelopment.

Then there are the current fears that the move of the Wholesale Markets from right next to the Bullring Market will cause major hassle – Jon Bounds has commented on the silliness of the image of traders wheeling trolleys full of cabbages half way across town half way through the trading day, but there’s the very real concern of how produce will be then transported, coupled with the new uncertainty surrounding when the move will actually happen.

But to me, what has finally killed the market is the combination of the serious drop in quality of the produce on sale, combined with the scourge of the man from the weights and the measures, the Poundabowl.

Now don’t get me entirely wrong – where the typical shopper might think more in terms of a number of items rather than a weight of items, there’s nothing wrong with it; but it still makes price comparisons difficult, because you don’t know how much you’re getting for your pound from different traders – you may well even be getting a [...]

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