Bracknell Forest Digital Services


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New website launch

Our new website is now live!

It’s been a journey of almost two years from initial workshops and planning, to finally building the site over the last few months. The past six months have borne the brunt of the work, hence the radio silence on the blog!

We’ve put a lot of focus on redesigning the site to make our online services easier and faster to use.

We have also simplified it so that our customers can find the information they want without having to wade through large amounts of unnecessary information. We’ve removed documents where possible, taking off over 1000 of them in the process.

This is not to say the site is perfect. It’s not. It’s a work in progress.

We still have a long way to go to get the content perfected, to get the number of documents down further and to work out some of the issues with navigation and search. But in making the site live now, we will better be able to capture feedback and solve the problems that affect customers.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us with feedback and testing over the course of the project.


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My way or the highway; creating new content for roads

Roads icon

My first experience of creating structure and content for the new website was for the roads section.

We had two workshops about this section. One was with Highway Network Management (which has several teams within it) and the other was with Highway Asset Management.

For customers, these teams do one overall thing: look after roads. So it’s not relevant to them that there are different teams, and teams within teams, some of which deal with traffic flow, others which deal with potholes. Instead, the customer journey needs to include the services offered by both these teams without breaking that journey into two parts.

Secondly, both these service areas are pretty keen on the word highway. It’s important to them – and it’s what they are all about. But, from a user perspective, we’re really talking about roads. Okay, so it’s actually roads, pavements and even some verges, but that’s getting complicated which is the opposite of where we want to be.

Keeping our content crystal clear is a priority – our current website was highly rated by the Plain English Campaign just this week. What I’ve noticed, is that you can always review content for the better. So let’s use the word roads, where roads makes more sense in the context.

 

Guide pages

We sourced the idea of guide pages from GOV.UK; the format is an overview or introduction page with related (numbered) pages that you can clearly see at the top. If it’s a process, you can go through them in numerical order, or you can click straight to the content that’s relevant to you. Here’s a snippet taken from GOV.UK:

Snippet taken from GOV.UK of an example guide page

There were two instances where I re-structured content into a guide page. One was a PDF about gritting and one was a page about abandoned vehicles that was so long I’m not sure anyone but me has reached the end of it. For both of these, I changed the content into the new guide page structure so they had a short intro and simple, associated pages.

In terms of making sure the content was in Plain English, turning the bottomless page into more manageable pieces of information was pretty straightforward as it was already written for a web audience.

Much more editing was required with the PDF, which raises yet another problem with PDFs – not only are they generally not very accessible – they tend to be created without that keen focus on a web audience. If they are serving no purpose and no-one is looking at them (over half of our PDFs currently get no views at all) – get rid of them. If they are important – consider changing them into web pages instead.

 

Make things better

If our content team had a tag-line, this could be it. T-shirts anyone?

Image of a tee shirt with the words: Make things better


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How to make an enormous website seem simple

Coming from a private sector marketing background, I’ve been involved in the launch of two new websites, one for a shopping centre and one for a niche B2B company in the airline industry. I thought these were decent sized projects, until recently…

Redeveloping the council website is a bit like having to do 10 shopping centre websites all at once, because the breadth of services that we offer is so huge. The challenge is to make your journey through our site, as clear and simple as possible, so that you won’t even notice how large the rest of the site is.

On 16 Feb, we spent a day focusing on the Information Architecture of the new website, and a simple user journey was our top priority. This part of the process is not linked to the design of the site (which will equally need to pay good attention to the user journey), so the picture below is not design – rather it’s a way of capturing steps in the user journey.

Homepage IA

Once these wireframes are refined, we can then test them and improve them. One of our goals with the new website is to strip everything down to be as simple as possible, whilst continuing to follow the approach that the GDS (Government Digital Service) have developed for GOV.UK.

We also want to extend the range of accessibility options and discussed ideas around creating an easy read landing page which is easier to read (as well as creating more of this content in the first place). We challenged our current approach to accessibility – and agreed that if something isn’t helping we will remove it and use something that is.

Flexibility is key in other areas as well, which is why using new open source software is such a big advantage for us. How can we promote important things at certain times of the year – such as school admissions or elections – whilst retaining the bread and butter parts of our site?

Although the day opened up new questions for us to investigate, we now have a very clear direction for the back-end build of the website, which has been informed by the service area workshops (read about a particularly fun one at The Look Out). The new site will be responsive so it doesn’t matter how you access it (over 50% of our website visitors aren’t using a PC), and I am certain it will be really quick and easy to use. Next stop, design workshop!


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Talking Local Gov websites

Leeds

Leeds canal – more picturesque than expected!

I recently had the chance to go to Local Gov Camp in Leeds. Local Gov Camp is an unconference hosted by Local Gov Digital where lots of local government (and otherwise engaged) folks turned up to run sessions on whatever they felt the need to discuss. Sessions ranged from service design, to open source LEGO and much more besides. (Check out the Local Gov Digital site for some great information on the camp as a whole!)

I pitched a session to look at website navigation. As we are about to start trying to pull our new site navigation together, I wanted to hear what other councils are doing.

The session itself ended up looking at a lot of different ideas around council websites, with some great contributions from Sarah Lay over at Nottinghamshire Council, where they just went live with a new site.

Whilst there was no one output from this session, a lot of what we discussed needs to be considered during our redevelopment project. Some of the key points follow:

  • If we ensure that our content works in search, we can reduce down landing pages and hierarchical structures.
  • We are making assumptions all the time as what people want to do. In doing this, we need to make sure we are clear about what they actually need to do. This then must be clearly reflected in our user journeys, so customers can understand and complete their task.
  • Language is fundamental. The site needs to reflect the natural language of the customer and not ‘council-speak’.
  • The website is a digital interface into the whole council and has to work for the customer first, not the service team.
  • Don’t force everything online. The soft approach with some services works better. Some people need to see people.

These ideas now need to inform the workshops we run with service teams, the content we present and the approach we take to the site as a whole. I know I will certainly be thinking about these ideas as we move through the project and will encourage our whole team to do the same.


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Re-developing council tax

It’s been about 6 weeks since our first workshop. We’ve been running a whole bunch of other workshops in that time, and there is a lot of work coming out of each one but we are now getting things together to hand over to our designer to start some basic wireframes. With this progress in mind, I thought it would be interesting to talk through what is happening after a workshop from a content perspective, by looking at the progress with the council tax section.

With service teams we are talking through where customers might have come from, what kind of content they would expect to see and how they would work through the task. In this, we are mapping out one of the main user journeys. For council tax this was ‘set up a direct debit for council tax’.

Direct debit user journey

After mapping out this journey in the workshop, we are then looking at what else the team have said, as well as at usage statistics and all the other information we have gathered, to work out what pages we are going to need for the section. For each section we are producing a discovery report to scope out what we will or won’t do, and what needs there are to meet.

After pulling all this together, I have been scribbling down what kind of pages I think we will need in the section, and how they might link together. Excuse the badly drawn boxes! This was an exercise in thinking about the content as a whole, rather than a drawing challenge!

Draft of council tax pages

This is helpful because it gives us a better view of the content we are going to need and the format it might take. This is then being put into an online program called ‘Gather Content‘ which is used to write and review content. I took the above structure and added each page to our gather content site, along with the first draft of the re-written content.

council-tax-gather-content

All of this content will now be reviewed by several members of the team to check that it meets our standards, as well as to help us develop our new content standards for the new site.

With content well underway for this section, I’ve handed all of this off to our designer Leyla, who is working hard to put together the wireframes (she’ll be blogging soon to explain that process!). Once we have our wireframes, we will give them to our technical guys to make an alpha in Drupal.

Our second Treejack survey for the council tax section is now live. Thanks to everyone who left their feedback on the first one! It was really helpful! You will find this second survey very similar to the first, but the tree structure has been tweaked a little bit to improve (hopefully) the section’s overall structure.

Don’t forget that you can also sign up to be notified for any future user testing.


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Our Drupal journey

Five years ago open source software was not on our radar at Bracknell Forest. About eighteen months ago that all changed as we looked for a replacement for our web content management system. We wanted a system that would give us the flexibility to develop and design websites ourselves, whenever we wanted to. We chose to trial the use of Drupal, an open source platform built, used and supported by an active and diverse community of developers from around the world.

When we started our journey with Drupal we had just achieved four stars in the SOCITM Better Connected Review. So why did we consider such a fundamental change at this time? Well, we wanted the freedom to develop and change our website to meet ever changing requirements and public expectations.

We had found ourselves constrained by content management systems over the last ten years. They generally proved effective at managing content but offered little scope in terms of ongoing development. As a result we got locked into a regular cycle of website redevelopments. Every three to five years we had to start afresh, commission a new design and go through a long and often tortuous process of building a new site. We decided that it was time to move on and break this cycle of major website redevelopments. Our vision moving forward is to build a new web infrastructure which will allow us to incrementally improve our website as and when it is needed.

We have chosen Drupal to help us to achieve this. We have spent the last year or so assessing Drupal in a very practical way by building and commissioning a range of microsites. This has helped us to confirm that Drupal can work for us, before moving ahead and using it to redevelop our public website.

It is well known that there is a sharp learning curve to get to grips with Drupal. The team have immersed themselves fully in this challenge, rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. But it would be naive to think that we could have done this alone and unaided. So we have had some help along the way from external organisations in terms of Drupal design, development, hosting and support. This managed approach has helped us to set up a flexible hosting environment for us to develop and commission microsites built in Drupal. We couldn’t have achieved what we did in terms of rapidly developing and deploying a range of microsites without some outside help. The Bracknell Forest JSNA and Xpresionz (a website for young people in Bracknell Forest) are two examples of microsites developed with external support.

From our initial experience of Drupal it became clear that we needed expert help to allow us to exploit the potential of this powerful open source software. Using external support over time could have proved costly and would not have given us the flexibility that we required to build our new public website. So we decided to recruit a Drupal developer and look to this individual to help to drive our ambitions forward. This did not prove an easy task as the general supply of Drupal developers is very limited and developers are highly sought after. However after several rounds of recruitment we managed to find a talented Drupal developer who wanted to work with us.

Our aspirations for using Drupal extend beyond helping us to redevelop our own public website. We want to actively share what we create with other local authorities and encourage others to share what they have created. The number of local authorities using Drupal is slowly growing, but there is currently no active local government Drupal community that we are aware of. We hope that our work will in some way help to inspire and encourage others to consider Drupal and the potential benefits of working together to share and develop website functionality. We are keen to share knowledge with other local authorities and learn from other web and digital services teams who have already been using it for a number of years.