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

simon gray 2012-09-14, 15:43:58
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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 – including members of the public – to show full transparency in our thinking, and provide an evidence base for work which will in due course become the main site.

Alpha will be the place where new designs, navigation, and content is developed and tested with customers and other stakeholders before migration to the main site, in order to allow

  • The programme of website improvements to be made clearly visible to customers, council officers, and members rather than hidden away in the respective sections of the site,
  • The programme to be a rolling, gradual series of improvements showing a constant work package delivered within an agile framework, allowing for change and evolution as requirements change in a fast-moving technology landscape,
  • Ultimate transparency in consultation with customers, officers, and members, where in addition to proposed developments being shared publicly before being adopted, the rationale behind those developments will also be shared with stakeholders being encouraged to feed back on the proposals, and
  • The minimum level of disruption caused to the main existing site whilst the development takes place.

Segmentation Portal

The proposed starting point of the alpha project shall be a new home page, building on good practice already pioneered by Liverpool.gov.uk but leading to a radical new approach in local government website architecture.

Current thinking describes 80% of our customers being interested in only 20% of our content, leading to a pressure for as much as possible of the remaining 80% of content to be culled. This however is a flawed view of who are customers are and what is important to them, and also ignores the legal and moral requirements for much of the content which is deemed to be uninteresting to the majority of customers to still be available to them in order to preserve the essential democratic accountability of the council.

Taking a quantitative analysis of access statistics rather than a qualitative one ignores the possibility that the reason some pages are accessed rarely might be because they are so poorly presented in the menu structure of the site and are so poorly optimised for search that the customers who are interested in that content simply fail to find them. Other pieces of content – such as, for example http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/transum – which might be rarely accessed by customers might indeed not be intended to be anything other than rarely accessed, but still need to be present as archive documents for the stakeholders to access at any time rather than having to make phone or email contact with the council to retrieve them. Lastly, some pieces of content might only be accessed once a year, but if the person who is trying to access that content is the chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership responsible for the allocation of millions of pounds worth of investment in the city, their inability to find that content reflects badly on the council. Regardless of the reasons some rarely-accessed content might be rarely accessed, with website access statistics of the period 1 June – 1 July 2012 being 3,134,725 page views of 2,317,162 unique pages by 460,608 unique visitors visiting the site 731,470 times, it is clear that even a removal of 50% of the site’s content, let alone 80% would lead to the removal of a significantly measurable amount of content which if not there would lead to the reverse channel shift of customers needing to make a phone call, send an email, or visit a customer service centre in order to get hold of.

It is accepted that there is redundant, out-of-date, trivial, and vanity content which serves no obvious purpose – for example, it is doubtful that any driver habits will been changed as a result of a driver happening to visit one of the pages linked to from http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/road-safety/driving-safety ; on the other hand the single page http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/highways-works-programme which at first glance appears to be a set of dry policy documents upon further analysis becomes essential information which if intelligently re-purposed and placed more sensibly in the menu structure and turned into a series 12 well-designed web pages could become a genuinely useful resource for the citizens of Birmingham, improving the reputation of the site and council itself, and contribute to channel shift by reducing the need for residents to phone up to find out when their road is due to be resurfaced.

The segmentation portal solves the problem of rarely-accessed content and frequently-accessed content competing with each other for attention in the same information space, allowing rarely accessed content which is necessary to survive by separating that content out from one single, large site into separate sites determined by a series of defined customer profiles:

  • The ‘standard’ customer – the 80% of our customers who are accessing the 20% of the content,
  • Students, graduates, and young professionals,
  • Business leaders, executives, and inward investors,
  • Small – often family – business owners and operators,
  • Politically and civically active citizens,
  • ‘Hard-to-reach’ groups,
  • People requiring care in some form, and their carers,
  • Parents,
  • Visitors and potential migrants to the city,
  • Members and council officers seeking relevant information.

From this we can extrapolate six distinct segmented sites:

  • My local area – a site not only responding to the emerging localism agenda, but also providing other information about services directly in, around, and related to the area in which the enquirer lives,
  • Residents – where the bulk of the 20% content will be,
  • Business – for both the small family business owners and the leaders and executives,
  • About the city – transcending all the defined customer profiles containing information necessary to all, including transport information, history and demographics of the city, and information relevant to potential investors,
  • The council – for the citizen activists, members and council officers, and to a certain degree the inward investors,
  • What’s on and leisure – similarly to About the city, containing information which transcends the uniquely defined customer profiles.

At the heart of the six chosen segmented sites lies the principle that the customer must not be made to feel like they have been segmented according to a customer profile, rather that whatever informational or transactional need has brought them to birmingham.gov.uk site they should be able to immediately see in which of the six segments their need will be fulfilled.

The global navigation of the Local Government Navigation List will be dispensed with entirely, however a form of global navigation – successfully adopted by the bbc.co.uk website estate for a number of years – will be preserved in the shape of the links to the six segmented sites appearing in a horizontal bar at the top of each page, with traditional local navigation on the left hand side, curated service-related cross-sell links appearing where relevant at the bottom of each page (eg the page giving information about cycling in Birmingham under About the city containing a ‘see also’ link to the Cycling Strategy policy document in The Council, or information about premises licenses which have been applied for under Residents linking to information about how to apply for a premises license in Business), and targeted channel shift and marketing and communications links in a column on the right hand side.

Design principles

There are two major principles which need to underpin the design of a new site – (a) the need for absolute simplicity, whether the audience is a digital native or a nervous computer user, and (b) the need to deliver a modern, fresh look unencumbered by the complexity of the conflicting needs and demands of the various diverse stakeholders.

By starting off with a simple, bold, and accessible home page, which should scale gracefully to fit any screen regardless of it being desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone, the customer can instantly see that their needs will apply to one of the six chosen segments, and follow through with their task without being confused by the presence of information which is irrelevant to their needs. Aesthetically, the design will need to be simple, bold, elegant, and uncluttered; a combination of the modern with the timeless principles of Swiss design – big headings, finger-friendly for touchscreen devices, and bold iconography.

Planned approach

The timescale for the complete package of work, from first release of the starting point of the proposed alpha designs to the completion of the work with all the old content and designs having been replaced by the new content will be up to two years.

Clearly, for two years worth of work to be carried out entirely in the background with no public deliverables along the way – even with full public consultation on the work in progress – would be unacceptable. Therefore, a phased release approach will be necessary:

  1. Suggested main home page and segmentation home pages, with links from those home pages to existing pages delivered in alpha,
  2. Prioritisation of detailed content by service area to be determined, balancing the need to show visible improvements to what are objectively the most popular service areas with what are subjectively the worst areas of the current main site,
  3. Development of initial new top-level content in alpha,
  4. Creation of seven new sites (six segments plus extra Webteam site) in Fatwire as beta.birmingham.gov.uk
  5. Detailed content development to take place in alpha,
  6. Phased migration of content from alpha to beta,
  7. Final cutover from beta to www.birmingham.gov.uk

Although the above depicts a sequence of events, in actuality much of the work will be done using an iterative approach with some tasks been carried out simultaneously with others; a detailed timeline will evolve during the course of the project.

Transparency and consultation

Fundamental to the project is a desire for the whole process to be carried out in the open, allowing internal stakeholders and external customers access to the work in progress in order to comment and shape the developing work. As well as the alpha site being a publicly accessible site, there will also be the facility on the site itself for customers to offer feedback, both in free text format and through structured questionnaires. In addition to online consultation, offline consultation will also take place by way of focus groups, userlabs, and service location specific activity (such as eg consulting on library pages in an actual library). Further transparency of the process will be ensured by the process itself being blogged along the way – again, on the alpha site itself.

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

Brought to you by simon gray. Also find me on Mastodon

The code behind this site is a bit of an abandoned project; I originally had lofty ambitions of it being the start of a competitor for Twitter and Facebook, allowing other people to also use it turning it into a bit of a social network. Needless to say I got so far with it and thought who did I think I was! Bits of it don't work as well as I'd like it to work - at some point I'm going to return to it and do a complete rebuild according to modern standards.