I was really excited to come across a recent post from Analisa Lono at Adaptive Path about a new course they are putting together with the University of San Francisco:
Our goal with this course is to provide the opportunity for students to gain exposure to concepts, methods, and professionals outside of their academic disciplines while getting first-hand experience creating a digital product for the purpose of serving their community.
Young Rewired State and Apps for Good are two inspiring UK initiatives that encourage young people to use digital technologies, to provide innovative and useful solutions to social problems. Young Rewired State, a spin off from Rewired State, follows a hack day format and is focused on developing coding skills. The founder, Emma Mulqueeny, also co-founded the Coding for Kids movement, to campaign for a more relevant ICT education that gives young people the ability to shape their digital future. Apps For Good is an initiative for young, unemployed people which focuses on developing entrepreneurial and creative skills. The participants also learn practical, iterative design techniques such as paper prototyping.
Design Jams are similar to hack days and usually take place over one or two days. They provide an opportunity for less experienced UX practitioners and students to work with mentors on solving actual design problems. Some of the design problems tackled have been civic issues, for example Design Jam Oxford tackled the perennial problem of how to improve the experience of commuting with digital technologies.
Similar to Design Jams and Charity Hack days, again with a practical design focus, Cooper Design recently ran a UX Bootcamp which enabled students to try their hand at designing mobile apps for the Red Cross.
There are two things that interest me about the new course in San Francisco:
Most local gov webbies will probably already be aware that the focus of Socitm’s 2012 Better Connected review will be on managing top tasks and improving the user experience of Council websites. As a dyed-in-the-wool user experience fanatic I fully support this direction.
Whether your web team takes the Better Connected report with a pinch of salt, or work painstakingly to address all the reviewers’ findings, is neither here nor there, in my opinion. What is important is that Better Connected is aiming to address fundamental problems with the user experience of Council websites.
Now as a local gov web manager, I am painfully aware of the constraints we all work under as Council web teams. Resources and budget can be limited and Council websites can be sprawling, monstrous beasts to control, maintain and improve. And then there’s the governance issues and organisational politics we all have to deal with. Politics with a small ‘p’ and a big ‘P’. But with a bit of determination and a focus on top tasks, I think we really can improve the experience of citizens who have no choice but to Council websites to access certain public services.
On 15 September I attended Socitm’s top task event in London. I was speaking alongside Conor Moody and Kevin Jump from Liverpool Direct and (what an act to follow) the hugely entertaining Gerry McGovern. In the afternoon there were a series of workshops by the Better Connected reviewers and an RNIB accessibility expert. The event was put together by Martin Greenwood and the rest of the Socitm team.
In this context a top task is deemed to be:
the things that users come to your site to do most frequently
On a Council website examples of top tasks are:
Although I’ve given a similar talk before, I’ve embedded my updated slides from my talk below to provide some context for those that didn’t attend the event.
Here’s a quick summary of the main points I will take away from the event.
Gerry McGovern used a great example in his talk to demonstrate how easy it is for web professionals to think they understand how users behave, rather than observing how users actually behave. The two are often poles apart. I always love usability testing sessions because they are so eye opening. User testing gives your real insights into your users / customers and confidence in how to improve your website and web content.
But whilst we already do user testing, we don’t do it often enough. Recruiting users has proved to be time consuming and difficult. Gerry advised that we would be better off doing shorter, more frequent remote testing sessions using something like Go To Meeting to connect remotely to participants. This is something I’m pretty sold on now, having recently read Steve Krug’s book Rocket Surgery Made Easy. If you’re doing user testing on a budget I would highly recommend Steve’s book. He famously has ‘a common sense approach to web usability‘ and provides very clear instructions, tips, guidance and checklists for user testing, which are all incredibly useful.
Getting a handle on content governance is probably second most important thing we need to do to improve our website. If you have no control over what content is being created customer experience can really suffer. Devolved web publishing seemed like a great idea a few years ago. Complex content workflows were created with hundreds (I’m not kidding) of content, or CMS, authors and publishers, who are trained and given permissions to use the CMS. But where are we now?
Re-gaining control of your content is not as easy as it sounds. We’re tackling this by:
I have to admit this can be a daunting task, but more and more Councils are ditching the Local Government Navigation List standard and designing a top task focused IA like Liverpool City Council’s website. There may be similarities between the navigation on your Council’s website and other Council websites (or if you don’t work in local gov, on a competitor website), but you must remember website IA must be based on what your users need. So be inspired by similar websites, but don’t copy them!
Some of the methods we are hoping to use to re-design are IA are:
“At night the tiny tasks go to bed and dream about being top tasks”
It’s easier said than done, but as Gerry pointed out in his talk, sometimes the tiny tasks can make a customer’s journey on your website really difficult. They can also result in your customers mistakenly thinking they have got the right information to answer their question, when in actual fact they’ve got the wrong information. This is a disaster and when the customer realises their mistake, they are unlikely to trust your website again.
Kevin Jump highlighted how Liverpool have separated Council policies and strategies from service delivery on the Liverpool City Council website. Policies have to be on the site, but are in the About the Council section and don’t clutter up the top tasks pages of their website.
One of our biggest challenges is how we make our website work for customers, when it is also being used by our customer service advisers in the call centre as a knowledge-base. There’s a real conflict between focusing on making top tasks easy to complete for customers and providing information that may be useful to someone, but is only needed infrequently (the tiny tasks). Similarly you may have information on your website which is more aimed at staff and customer service advisers than customers.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve not got it in for tiny tasks! I don’t want to remove all tiny tasks from our website, because they have a use. But taking Gerry’s advice we are planning to use hidden pages to provide links to the information that doesn’t meet user’s top tasks (i.e. the tiny tasks). We’ll also aim to gather evidence through user testing our tasks on where the tiny tasks are harming top tasks. Along the way there will be compromises to be made, but hopefully over time we’ll achieve a solution that works for customers and customer service advisers.
Managing top tasks requires a lot of research and constant, iterative user testing and tweaking.
But the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Last week I was at the Building a Perfect Council Website 11 conference. When you manage a website with a wide range of content and services it’s crucial to focus on the main customer tasks and journeys. I did a workshop on ‘top tasks’ with my colleague Matt Godfrey and Conor Moody from Liverpool Direct. Conor shared some excellent insights on how Liverpool City Council’s website has been turned around by focusing on top tasks and content strategy. Our presentation focused on what data we have analysed to identify and improve our top tasks and UX techniques we have used.
Here are the slides from our talk:
I’ve been doing a bit of thinking recently about a approaches to service design in local government in the light of the government’s localism or Big Society agenda.
The way I see it there should be a balance between the following elements:
Let’s face it, business strategy in local government is primarily about cost cutting right now either through streamlining of business processes, use of cheaper channels, selling / transferring assets and working in partnership.
Listening to local communities and working with them to co-produce better public services and outcomes is one of the cornerstones of localism.
Customer insight and open data
This to me is the really interesting element in the triangle. Customer insight is data about what different customer groups want and need, what services they already use and what channels they prefer using. Data can be gathered from channel usage statistics and customer research. Open data is all about transparency and making data about council services, assets, performance and spending accessible.
Once data is out there in the open, it can be used to tell stories, which make it more meaningful. In turn this can stimulate ideas and provide new perspectives on how to deliver services.
So how might this model work in practise? If all three elements of the triangle are brought together:
Let’s assume in an ideal world that service design is an iterative process, whereby services are analysed, prototyped, tested and improved continually. Ideally each element in this model should be considered at all stages of an iterative process, to make sure one element is not dominant over the others. If business strategy dominates services may not meet community needs and if democratic engagement dominates services may be designed around more vocal groups within the community.
I’m not sure what the impact might be of data being a dominant element in service design. Or if it matters. This is just a way for me to think through service design and localism and I’d be interested in what anyone else involved in service re-design in local government thinks.
In advance of this year’s fantastic UKGovCamp (aka #ukgc11) I pitched a session idea on lessons learnt from using an Agile project management method to manage web development. My idea for the session arose after some interest in a blog post I wrote recently and the discussion on the UKGovCamp forum thread.
So on the day I came armed with my slides and stood in line to pitch my session. I was joined by Stefan Czerniawski and Catherine Howe, who pitched a second session to explore the potential for applying Agile principles to policy. This is an area I am very interested in, but as I have limited experience of working with policy makers I ended up taking more of a back seat in their session, to observe, absorb and blog some loose notes.
Thankfully Catherine has written up a brilliant blog post about the session. Which is a relief, as I was flagging a bit at that point and was finding it hard to stay mentally alert. I think I used up all my energy facilitating the first session and also felt a bit ropey from having stayed out too late the night before – my only regret about the whole day!
The session went far better than I could have hoped for. It was well attended and resulted in an open and fascinating discussion about the practicalities of implementing Agile methods and applying them effectively.
Photo by Paul Clarke
There was a real mix of participants. Some with loads of experience and some who knew very little about Agile, but were curious to find out more. In preparing for the session I hadn’t really considered that some of the participants wouldn’t be familiar with the Agile manifesto, terminology or methods like Scrum and the roles involved. So I did my best to explain the concept of Agile and the Scrum method in simple terms in limited time and some gaps in my own knowledge. But I realise that pitching the session at the right level, to address the varying experience and understanding of those in the room, was a challenge. I look forward to Julia’s notes on the session (as mentioned in her write up of the day) as a relative Agile newbie.
I explained that we have used the Scrum method in my organisation (a county council) for about 18 months for web development projects, with varying degrees of success. Here are the slides I presented in the session:
The following notes are written up from memory, as I was too busy talking (as usual) to write down anything during the session. I haven’t attributed these insights to individuals (in case I do so incorrectly!), but they were a combined effort of the participants who attended.
It can be difficult to introduce Agile methods when senior managers are sceptical. I recommended starting small by applying an Agile method to development of a mature platform, rather than choosing a project with significant risks and unknowns.
Someone asked if you can do Agile covertly. And the consensus was – yes absolutely! Agile can fit within existing, more traditional project management processes quite neatly, e.g. within the ‘product delivery’ phase of Prince2. It was even suggested you could do Agile within the ‘implementation’ phase of a waterfall method and by the time you get to the ‘verification’ phase, you’ve already done the testing you need to. Business people don’t want to know how you are delivering something, just that you deliver results.
But…and there are two big buts…
When a development team learns their velocity over time, introducing someone new to the team can throw things off balance. Estimation poker can help the estimation process, because developers have to discuss and resolve why there are differences in their estimations.
Developers can sustain their pace when working in sprint cycles. Following a waterfall method can result in a huge rise in stress levels as you approach a big bang launch and everyone is working overtime to get a product finished. Instead there are small rises in stress levels at the end of a sprint, but developers should be able to leave work at 5 pm and maintain their pace in a sustainable way.
The velocity of the team (progress over a series of sprints) can be greatly improved by having a UX designer produce designs in advance of the sprints.
Agile involves developers in business strategy, so they work towards achieving business objectives.
Although the Agile principles promote face-to-face communication and co-location of teams is often cited as being important, it is possible to use geographically dispersed teams if you make good use of technology. An example was given of how a team which is distributed worldwide use Skype to manage daily scrums.
Not everything gets finished at the end of a sprint. Developers must be prepared to throw code away.
Be flexible about the method and techniques you use e.g. user stories could be written up on cards and stuck on the wall, kept in a spreadsheet or a specialist application.
Agile can be applied outside IT contexts. One participant said that his organisation has applied Agile principles to business strategy projects.
I’d like to extend my thanks to Dan Hardiker, Andrew Woodward, Catherine Howe and Sharon O’Dea who all pitched in with excellent insights based on their experiences of working in an Agile context. I personally learnt loads from the other participants.
Which goes to show if you’re willing to share your own experiences, you get back a bucketful of new insights and knowledge from others in the process!
I’m a fan of personas. In the user experience (UX) field, personas are fictional profiles of your users based on research data. Personas can bring your users to life and help guide the design process. Giving your personas names, pictures, personal profiles and using believable narratives will help everyone involved in a project to empathise with user goals, behaviours and motivations in a very tangible way.
Personas have been used in web UX design for a number of years. Alan Cooper has long promoted the use of personas as part of his goal directed design method. I have recently been reading an excellent book by Steve Mulder on personas. Turning research data into personas can be overwhelming and I’d recommend Steve’s book if you want a really good understanding of how to develop and use actionable personas.
Photo by CannedTuna on Flickr
There’s been a flurry of conversation on Twitter in the last few days about the potential for the use of agile methods in the public sector. As a result @pubstrat created the hashtag #pubsecagile and started a thread on the UK GovCamp 2011 site.
I wrote a post back in November 2009 about some of the potential barriers to introducing agile methods to manage web development projects in a local government context. In the local authority I work for we’ve been using Scrum to manage web development projects and we’ve learnt some useful lessons, which I’ll discuss later on in this post.
In recent months quite a few public sector bloggers including @brianhoadley, @curiousc, @pubstrat, @publicsectorpm and @loulouk have written about agile methods. Some have touched on using agile principles and methods in different contexts (i.e. to software development) within the public sector. Some of the posts mentioned here suggest applying agile concepts within the public sector in non-IT contexts.
Agile methods such as Scrum, DSDM or XP were originally designed for managing software development projects. I won’t go back over this as I described the differences between the more traditional waterfall methods and agile methods in my previous post. Much of what has been written about agile methods (in books and online) also relates to software development.
The use of Lean methods has also been picking up pace in the public sector in recent years. Lean is a technique developed by Toyota to reduce wastage in their manufacturing processes. Lean has now been adapted for use in the public sector and is ideal for transforming public services to improve productivity and efficiency and achieve the holy grail of doing more with less.
Agile is known as a being a mindset or philosophy rather than a method itself. Looking at the Agile Manifesto it is quite possible to see how the concepts can be used in different contexts to software development. I’ve re-produced the manifesto below and simply changed the word ‘software’ to ‘systems’ (by ‘system’ I am referring to socio-technical systems that comprise people, processes and technology or non-technical systems i.e. just people and processes).
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working systems over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.
While researching this post I found a great presentation by David Anderson which he gave at the Agile 2008 conference. David spoke about the potential for using agile concepts in non-IT fields like marketing, design and recruiting. It seems from David’s presentation that even within the agile community the idea of using agile methods outside of IT software development projects was relatively innovative back in 2008.
More recently, the Agile Business Conference in October 2010 (organised by the DSDM consortium) focused on the naked truth of how agile methods are being used in non-IT environments and included a public sector track with an NHS case study. I would be really keen to see how those interested in the #pubsecagile Twitter conversations can tap into existing agile for business networks where conversations are already taking place. Interestingly the DSDM community members government list is distinctly lacking representatives from local and central government organisations.
But my feeling is a more open discussion is needed which as far as possible is agnostic of any particular agile methods. So bring on UK GovCamp 2011!
Where possible I am also trying to follow some interesting and innovative discussions in the agile UX community, for example the Agile UX Retreat.
So onto the second part of this post…
If you’re going to use an agile method make sure any team members responsible for delivering interdependent parts of a service redesign project delivery and senior managers are on board. You can’t expect other stakeholders to fit into your time boxes when you need them to, or to understand what you are doing. You must clearly outline the benefits of your approach up front and get their explicit buy in. If you don’t have all dependent parts of the project using an agile method you’ll run into blockers (issues) which you just can’t shift, which will impact on your burndown (progress in completing tasks on the sprint backlog) and ultimately the velocity (amount completed from the product backlog in each sprint).
One of the drawbacks of the traditional waterfall method is the potential that you can spend far longer than anticipated developing software because the scope is unwieldy and it can be hard to estimate in terms of time and cost. Worse still you might end up with an unfinished product and can’t accommodate changing requirements.
Going agile can provide more certainty and flexibility, but requires the team to estimate user stories from the backlog using complexity points, and then to break them down into tasks and re-estimate. Estimating the backlog should give you an indication of whether you’ll get a working feature or application within the time / budget you have available. The last thing you want is a situation where your burndown chart resembles a flatline on a life support system, because the estimates were inaccurate. The only way a Scrum team can really improve estimation is to keep reviewing their velocity in previous sprints. Which leads to the next lesson learnt…
If you have a mature application or website, you’ll probably find using agile methods a fantastic way to manage changes on a budget. You have control over the time and cost, but you can prioritise your user stories to ensure that only the changes which bring the most value to your users and the business are implemented.
Using agile methods for the development of new products or services carries more risk. In this situation you are more likely to have unknowns, particularly if you don’t already have a prototype or proof of concept. In this situation there is a danger you could still end up with a half-finished product when using agile methods.
If you are going the agile route, make sure you have dedicated teams that can fulfill the necessary roles of product owner, scrum master and those managing the product delivery (e.g. developers, user experience designers, content specialists). Don’t expect your project teams to manage lots of other committments during the sprint as they probably won’t have time. Product owners should be able to attend daily stand ups (in person or virtually) and spend time collaborating with the rest of the project team in planning and review meetings.
I don’t believe that you can effectively use agile methods like Scrum for web development projects unless your project delivery team includes all those involved in creating the finished product. Which for web projects includes content specialists and user experience designers, not just developers. You need to consider how software features will be implemented within an existing website and how users will experience the complete product as part of a user journey.
Most importantly, remember the 12th agile principle!
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
So what about those barriers I identified? Well here’s a quick run down of which of my predictions became actual barriers.