UKGC10 round-up

I went, I participated and I got the geek-tastic T-shirt!

UKGC10 logo on the freebie t-shirt

At last I’ve made it to a gov barcamp! Yesterday I attended UK GovCamp 10 (or #ukgc10 on Twitter) which was organised brilliantly by Dave Briggs and generously hosted by Google at their HQ in London. As a barcamp newbie I really enjoyed myself and talked far too much. The best thing about this type of event has to be the diverse range of interesting and enthusiastic people from the UK gov webbie community who attend (on a Saturday). And I really appreciated the opportunity to meet and chat to the people I know through Twitter and those I hadn’t come across before.

It was hard to pick and choose which sessions to go to from so many good ones, but here’s a quick round up of those I attended.

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Useful links and resources – Oct – 4th Dec

I’m pretty lame at blogging bookmarks, but I’ve found a few juicy things recently.

Promote the Vote is a fantastic site promoting the vote (obviously) for people with learning disabilities which has been led by Speaking Up in my home town Cambridge. Great design, content and videos. Designed by Easy Read Online.

Promote The Vote website

On a similar theme of accessibility, it’s good to know that Google are sorting out automatic captioning for videos on YouTube.

Broadband NotSpots let’s you check broadband availability in your area. Not sure how accurate it is, but useful for a rural project I am working on at the mo.

Carl Haggerty wrote a very interesting post about whether Council websites should be more community based:

My key point here is, without any external pressure, would councils have taken a more community based approach to their websites instead of being forced to deliver services online that offered no value initially.

Philip John blogged a request asking for ideas about widgets for hyperlocal sites. This is a heroic effort to make democracy more accessible, which I take my hat off to (well I would if I was wearing one). I’m looking forward to seeing what gets developed.

Ok it’s not new, but I found some great articles on sketching on the Adaptive Path site.

Phew that’s enough for now.


Lessons learnt from user testing (embedding usability in local government part 3)

A few months back I blogged about getting the teams up to speed with user testing. Since then we’ve tried a few things out and learnt a bit along the way about planning and running the tests. We’ve expended a fair bit of effort in getting some processes up and running, but hopefully next time we do testing things will be much more straightforward and worth the initial investment of time.

Before we started our usability testing we did quite a bit of analysis of our Google Analytics and customer feedback data, to find out what the top customer tasks are on the site (i.e. the things our customers do most frequently). We’ve based our user testing around a selection of the top 20 customer tasks.


Writing the test plan and preparing materials is important for any research, because you need to be clear about your objectives for the testing. It’s a good opportunity to think about exactly why you are doing the user testing and what you hope to find out about your users.

For example I wanted to know how our users perceive our web site on a first visit. So we asked participants to spend the first minute or two of the test looking at our home page and telling us what type of things they thought they could do on the site. This was very revealing and made us realise that our current home page really doesn’t say what it does “on the tin”, so to speak.

From our Google Analytics data we knew that around 50% of our website traffic comes via search engines. I wanted to know how findable some of our top tasks are whether users are searching in Google and deep linking into the site, or accessing our home page and browsing from there. So in the test plan I proposed that 50% of participants start the tasks from Google and 50% start from our home page.

I also wanted to collect some demographic information and assess user satisfaction, so I decided to create a pre-test and post-test questionnaire.

As well as the plan we had to:

  • create a profile for our participants – to ensure a representative sample of our main web site audiences;
  • create various materials – participant information sheet, test script, questionnaires, task list etc.;
  • book facilities – we opted to book rooms in our new library building which was easily accessible.

Recruiting participants

I’d forgotten how much admin is involved in user testing and if you plan to recruit your own participants, don’t under estimate the effort involved. You can pay a specialist company to recruit participants who match your participant profile, but obviously you pay a fee to the Recruiter.

Our first round of recruitment was pretty unsuccessful. We had a link to a sign up form linked from the home page of our site and advertised for participants in libraries.  We are offering participants an incentive (some tokens for a high street store) but even that wasn’t sufficient to entice residents to sign up! So we resorted to recruiting participants face-to-face, one at a time. That approach has been far more successful.

Ideally participants should be contacted by phone a week before and then a day before the session so you don’t run the risk of having ‘no shows’.

User testing software

Face-to-face testing with Morae

We finally invested in a copy of TechSmith’s Morae for our team laptop which enables us to record user tests.  The software records real-time screen capture (e.g. mouse clicks and cursor movements), audio and video (a small video of the participant’s face is shown in the bottom right corner of the screen). You could use Silverbackapp to do the same job (and it’s cheaper) but we are PC based at work.

So far we’ve done some user testing sessions and have more planned for this week. First impressions of Morae are very good. As a moderator you can facilitate the session far more easily, without worrying about having to write notes. The note taker was able to focus on logging the times when users experienced problems using the site during the tests, so we could add markers into the Morae timeline afterwards. I have since found out that we could have done this automatically using a Wii remote, so perhaps we can try that next time.

We ran the tests in the local library on a laptop with Morae Recorder installed, connected to the Council network. Using Morae’s Observer software, colleagues back at the office were able to login and observe the tests in real time from a PC. This is a real breakthrough and there is great potential for getting Council services to observe tests remotely, without putting off participants by being in the same room and wincing visibly or, worse still, offering to help when users struggle with their section of the site. We can take the laptop to any Council offices or premises that have a Council network connection, so effectively we now have a mobile testing lab on our laptop!

Remote, unmoderated testing with Loop11

Another tool we have tried using is Loop11, a DIY remote, unmoderated user testing tool. By setting up tests in Loop11 our participants can test the site from the comfort of their own home in a more relaxed environment. We set up a number of information seeking tasks in Loop11. The interface was very easy to use and setting up the tests was straightforward.

The task instruction is in the top green bar (as shown below) and the participant carries out the task on your site in the main frame of the browser window.


We set up the test so that participants have to answer a multiple choice question about the task they have just completed and then indicate how easy or difficult they found the task with a scalar question. Participants then click a ‘task complete’ or ‘abandon task’  button to proceed to the next task.

Loop11 records the time taken to complete a task and success or failure rate. We opted for Loop11 because, realistically, it was the only software we could afford to use. You can run the same test more than once, so for us it’s an excellent way to benchmark user task performance and measure improvements we make to the web site.

Next steps

We haven’t analysed data from our user testing yet. So we’ve yet to discover how much time that part of the process takes. I’m also conscious that we need to be aware that we’re relatively novice researchers and we have a vested interest in the site, which may bias our findings.

The final step of this research phase will be to create a usability issue log, prioritise the usability ‘problems’ and document the key findings in a presentation for Council services.

Then we’ll progress to the design phase, which is where it gets really fun!


Some books I referred to when planning the user testing (and as reference for document templates) included:

Handbook of Usability Testing and templates here

Observing the User Experience

Understanding your Users


Barriers to Agile web design and development in local government

I work in a team that manages local government web development projects. We work closely with applications developers in IT and we do most of our development in-house. A couple of years ago we realised noticed a pattern in the way we were working. Some projects had complex requirements and often involved working with new technologies. Bigger projects took 12-18 months to complete, which meant that work on the other web sites or applications had to be put on hold.

Early in the project the teams would have workshops and lots of meetings with colleagues in the relevant council services (i.e. business areas). The project managers would develop very detailed specifications to document the requirements. We would produce wireframes to show how we proposed the interface would look (and sometimes we tested the wireframes with the site users). We would send these lovingly crafted specifications to our development team who would spend a few days reading through our bloated documents, trying to interpret what we meant. The development team would then work up a detailed estimate for the work. Between us we would spend a considerable amount of time negotiating scope and estimates  before agreeing to proceed with development.

At last the developers could roll up their sleeves and start writing some code. The developers would work tirelessly to develop functionality that met all the requirements in the specification. Sometimes the developers weren’t able to complete all the functionality because they encountered problems they weren’t expecting because the technologies were new to us all. When the services got to do acceptance testing, they would ask for additional or different functionality, but by this time we’d used up the budget and run out of time to do any further development. If you hadn’t already noticed, I’m talking about the waterfall development methodology which follows a sequential process as follows:


We needed to find a way we could work more efficiently, improve communication with the development team and services and meet business and user needs more quickly.

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Digital engagement governance – a dichotomy between hyperlocal or partnership managed

I’ve just started working on a project where we’ll be exploring digital engagement methods, using social media alongside offline forms of engagement such as neighbourhood panels. The aim of the project is to improve community cohesion in a semi-rural community. The project is being developed as a partnership between the County Council, District Council, community centres, a rural development agency, housing associations, the Police and the Fire & Rescue Service.

The partners are all relatively new to the concept of digital engagement but are aware that any form of social media (e.g. blogs or social networking sites) requires governance and moderation. In the initial meeting I presented what I think of as a ‘governance dichotomy’ which we, as public service providers, should be open to when we consult with the community. By this I mean that we may end up with either a community led or a partnership managed approach to governance, depending on what the community and partnership jointly decide will work best.

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Useful links and resources – 31 October

Social Media and Networking

We’re doing a Social Media & Networking project at work. The aim of the project is to develop a ‘toolkit’ for staff. I found this online database of social media policies a starter for 10 – no point re-inventing the wheel.

Community Engagement

I recently started a project where we’ll be using social media to engage communities and improve community cohesion. For general guidance on engagement I found Engagement first five, the IDeA’s Practical ways to engage with your communities, Customer focus and community engagement and the older (but still useful) guide by David Wilcox The A-Z of effective participation. There is also lots of useful guidance on People and Participation

The community cohesion impact assessment and community conflict prevention tool has some pointers for planning and implementing a project which aims to improve community cohesion.

I read a couple of thought provoking blog posts by Dave Briggs and Tim Davies on the representativeness (or otherwise) of online engagement, which reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of months back about evaluating online engagement.

User research and design

I’ve also started up a project to improve customer experience on our corporate web site. We’re doing some remote testing with Loop11. I also thought the Five Second Test could be useful when we do the re-design. There’s nothing like an immediate customer response to make you feel humble ;D

I’m used to doing paper prototyping and using Visio, Dreamweaver and Powerpoint to mock up more interactive, hi-fi prototypes. I’ve not used any tools designed specifically for creating prototypes, but came across this great post on prototyping tools which opened my eyes to some alternatives.


Explaining social media to senior managers

This week I had the opportunity to present to senior managers in my organisation (a local authority) to explain what social media is, how it is affecting us and why we need to develop a social media strategy. The key message of the presentation was:

“People are having conversations about us online, but we are not part of those conversations.”

For me this was a great opportunity to get buy-in from the very top of the organisation to the development of a social media strategy. We already have a project underway to develop a social media framework (strategy, policy, guidelines and tools) which has arisen as a result of demand from services and growing awareness of the usage of social media tools by citizens.

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Foodshare Network – food philanthropists on the social web

An enthusiastic gardener friend mentioned a local initiative called the Foodshare Network last weekend. I think it’s a brilliantly simple idea. People who grow their own food can join the network, form groups (e.g. at their local allotment) and donate surplus home grown produce to local charities.


The network has been developed on Ning, the free social networking tool, by Cambridge based Mark Desvaux. There is also a wiki of Foodshare guidance for groups joining the scheme. Since launching a few weeks ago I gather the concept is really starting to take off. I really hope the simplicity of the idea and the ease of using setting up a group on a social networking site will mean it scales out. Foodshare has a goal to deliver one million hampers to charities around the world. Go Food Philanthropists!

This is just the motivation I needed to make some time to get down to the allotment and clear the weeds…


Social by Social review

Earlier this week I attended a workshop in London led by the authors of a new book entitled ‘Social by Social‘, which provides practical guidance about using social web technologies for social good. The workshop brought together a number of people who work in central government, social enterprises or charitable foundations who are developing programmes to support the use of social media by local communities. There were also several practitioners present, a few academic researchers and a fellow local gov web manager. It was a very useful opportunity to make contacts, map some of the projects that are going on, discuss some shared issues and work out how to share knowledge and learning from projects in future. Hopefully the conversation will continue on the Local Communities network.

sbs-bookI got stuck into reading Social by Social (which was commissioned by Nesta) as soon as it became available as a free PDF download, under a Creative Commons license. The timing couldn’t be better as I’m about to start a project in a rural area of Cambridgeshire working with a local community, voluntary sector organisations and public service providers. We’ll be trying out some of the new technologies described in Social by Social with the aim to improve community relations and improve links with service providers.

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Useful links and resources – 13th September

Since finishing my MSc exams in May I’ve been busy researching all things social media and gov 2.0. I’ve built up quite a collection of RSS feeds in Google reader and have been collecting bookmarks and resources via other sources like Twitter, so I thought I would start to share some of the links I have found useful.

Social by Social book – I highly recommend this free, downloadable book for any local gov officers involved in social media and online engagement projects. Really useful, pragmatic advice and loads of great links. The release of the free download couldn’t be more timely given that I am about to start on a project which will focus onusing social media to improve community cohesion.

How to research social media – having chosen a research question focused on social media for my MSc in Human Computer Interaction I suddenly realised I needed to get good at researching social media! I’ve found various tips around on how to conduct research and this was one of the useful links I came across earlier on. I think it’ll be a while before I master Yahoo Pipes though…

Handbook of research on Socio-technical Design and Social Networking systems – for my research project I am interested in how the use of social media by local Councils for citizen engagement relates to theories of the use of technology by organisations (socio-technical systems theory). Although this resource is quite theoretical, I have found it really useful and thought provoking for my research.

Elected Officials Should Get on Twitter If Only to Listen – useful blog post by Walter Neary which I have added to my bookmarks on the use of social media for citizen engagement. I think it’s useful to gather the views of elected officials rather than just webbies or comms officers who are already social media evangelists.

Local DirectGov Usability Site – I came across this link when searching for information about task walkthroughs. I can’t find it easily when navigating through DirectGov’s site but it has some really useful information and practical examples of task walkthroughs (aka cognitive walkthroughs) for local Councils. As the walkthroughs date back to about 2005 I’m surprised I’ve never seen this resource promoted more widely to local government.