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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Design principles

I’m doing some research into design principles for a project at work, with some colleagues. Design principles help focus and guide the design process to align product development with organisational objectives, brand values and user needs. Design principles provide strategic direction for design work, particularly for larger organisations with a number of products or services. But they can also work for start-ups and smaller organisations, who want to ensure they don’t stray from a clear vision that makes their product or service unique.

Design principles can also be thought of as best practise heuristics. I’m not going to write at length about how design principles can be used, as I’ve found some really useful resources elsewhere. For example Whitney Hess’s presentation, and posts by Jax WechslerLuke Wroblewski and Sarah Nelson.

There have been a couple of other notable posts recently which seem very timely given our design principles project. The first was by the UK Government Digital Service who have published a set of 10 design principles for developing Government digital services. It’s inspiring to see that GDS are using principles to focus their design projects. I particularly like the way their principles are written: clear, concise and no-nonsense. Juksie’s post about the GDS design principles is well worth a read.

The second post which came to my attention was from Abbey Covert, who has developed some IA heuristics. Abbey’s approach to developing the principles was led by reviewing the existing literature on IA best practise principles and heuristics, and synthesising her findings into a new set of heuristics.

One of our starting points has been to review existing design and usability principles, developed by UX researchers and other well known organisations. To help understand which principles are referenced most frequently, I collected principles from various sources (listed below*), added them to a spreadsheet, categorised them and visualised them as a word cloud:

A word cloud of frequently used design principles

I had to make some subjective decisions about how to categorise the principles, but it was fairly clear which are the most popular ones e.g. ‘consistent’, ‘simple’, ‘user control’, ‘inclusive’, ‘feedback’, ‘aesthetic design’. All these principles were included in Norman’s design principles and Neilsen’s heuristics which indicates that many organisations may have referenced those sources. It isn’t surprising that these existing principles have propagated, because they are are borne out by best practise and research.

‘User centred’ was mentioned less frequently in the design principles I analysed, perhaps because it seems too obvious. Newman and Lamming (1995) highlighted the importance of including even the most obvious principles:

The need to design with a view to supporting human activity is so basic it often gets left out of people’s general principles or ‘golden rules’. So it needs to be stated here at the outset:

  • Design with a view to supporting the user’s task or process.

A second principle relates to the need to address the concerns of the user. If we know who this user is and have some familiarity with his or her special needs, we can orient our design strategy accordingly. But we often lack this understanding. A fundamental guideline to follow is Hansen’s ‘user engineering principle’ (1971):

  • Know the user.

By a combination of studying the user’s activities and learning about their skills, knowledge, roles and responsibilities, we can design according to these two principles.

I was also surprised that references to emotional responses such as the principle ‘delightful’ were relatively under-used. Especially in a time when there seems to be a proliferation of books, talks and conference workshops covering topics such as designing products with personality, or designing for emotional engagement and delight.

Design principles can be developed at different levels. They can be universal, covering the entire design output of an organisation. Or they can be tailored for specific products or projects. We are aiming to develop some universal design principles in the first instance.

As we move to the next stage of developing our design principles I’m interested to know how well design principles work elsewhere. Does your organisation use design principles? Are you willing to share them? How have they worked for you? Do your products adhere to the principles? What happens if a design principle is ignored? Is there any governance to ensure design principles are followed? Please leave a comment if you have any insights to share!

* The principles we have referenced so far include:

Apple iOS
Bruce Tognazzini
Government Digital Service
Morville, Peter
Nielsen, Jakob
Norman, Don
Schneiderman, Ben
The Understanding Group’s Heuristic IA Principles




ByMichele Ide-Smith

Video of my #uxcam talk on embedding user experience

The talk I presented at UX Cambridge 2011 was filmed by InfoQ and is now live on their site, together with my slides:

Winning hearts and minds: how to embed user experience from scratch in a large organisation

The talk is about 45 minutes long and includes several lessons learnt and the findings from a survey I conducted on UX maturity in other organisations. I also wrote a blog post summarising the talk last year.

Screenshot of my UX Cambridge talk published on InfoQ.com













ByMichele Ide-Smith

UX Cambridge round up

When I first heard that UX Cambridge 2011 was being planned I was thrilled on two levels. Our city’s first dedicated UX conference offered a  great opportunity to learn new skills on home turf and meet up with fellow practitioners in the area.

I’m part of a group that organises UX talks in Cambridge and in the last year have noticed a steady growth in the local UX community. UX Cambridge was well attended by over 100 people and both days were jam packed with great sessions ranging from experience reports and case studies to tutorials, workshops and fishbowl discussions. The conference drew in some experienced practitioners from further afield and some new faces who hadn’t spoken in public before.

As with any conference, it’s impossible to get to all the sessions you want to. So here’s my summary of the talks I went to by Leisa ReicheltJeroen Van Geel and Alisan Atvur, for anyone that missed them.

Leisa Reichelt – Keynote on Strateic UX

Leisa’s keynote started with some reflection on her own experiences of consulting. She shared stories of big projects where the UX function has become marginalised rather than being aligned with, or driving, business strategy. Even the methods that UX practitioners use can be viewed with suspicion, for example working collaboratively and transparently and using wall space in an office to stick up post-its and sketches.

As a result of her experiences Leisa has developed a strategic framework (illustrated below) which she uses on all client projects, to ensure vision and customer experience in the most holistic sense is considered.

A framework for strategic UX by Leisa Reichelt

Leisa highlighted the similarities between the goals of UX and Customer Experience professionals. But she questioned why Customer Experience roles are often at executive manager levels in organisations, whereas UX roles often do not have a similar voice in key decisions about business direction, at a strategic level.

Leisa proposed that UX practitioners should take on the role of ‘facilitators’, assisting organisations to deliver a truly customer focused product. Her concluding advice was to say no often, but don’t get yourself fired!

I feel grateful that my own experiences have been more positive than Leisa’s. In my previous organisation I helped develop a customer experience strategy with my colleagues in customer service. We also worked collaboratively with our research team to mine customer data and develop customer personas. If you work client side it’s vital to reach out to any areas of the business that deal with customers, and work collaboratively to develop a shared vision and optimise customer experience. But it’s easier said than done, especially if you’re a UX team of one.

Leisa’s slides are available on Slideshare.

Here are my sketchnotes of Leisa’s talk:

Jeroen Van Geel – The Childish Washer and the Happy Website

Jeroen (aka “Chief Kahuna” at Johnny Holland Magazine) gave an insightful and amusing talk on personality in product design.

Jeroen showed a few examples of websites where the design conveys personality. He bemoaned how, as UX designers, we are often guilty of using design patterns too extensively, without considering how this impacts a website or web application’s personality. This was well illustrated with several screens of identical looking car websites!

Jeroen referred to the Media Equation – a theory of communication that claims people treat computers (and computer applications) as if they were other people. I’d not heard of the Media Equation before, but Jeroen explained how businesses use this to their advantage – by encouraging their customers to start a relationship with a brand.

He suggested that UX designers consider the following personality traits:

  • People prefer like-minded personalities;
  • Undiluted personalities are preferred over complicated ones;
  • Flaws add to the believability of the personality;
  • We judge in the first moment.
Jeroen used a simple example to illustrate how a website design can play to personality traits. He showed us the striking contrast between the White House home page in the last week of the Bush administration and the first day of the Obama administration:

The photo of Obama is deliberately personal – he looks straight out at the viewer.

The topics covered in Jeroen’s talk may sound very familiar to anyone with a background in brand management. However the point that Jeroen made, in conclusion, was that UX designers need to consider the impact of personality both in the research and design stages of projects, in order to design meaningful experiences for consumers.

Jeroen’s slides are available on Slideshare.

Here are my sketchnotes of Jeroen’s talk:

Alisan Atvur

Socrates, from Wikipedia

I love talks that draw inspiration from other disciplines to offer a different viewpoint and insights. Alisan’s talk did not disappoint. He focused on critical thinking in design, using inspiration from the Ancient Greek philopsopher Socrates. Alisan outlined how UX designers can apply Socratic reasoning within the design process to deliver better design solutions for users.

They key points in Alisan’s talk were:

Remove sophistry

In Ancient Greece, the Sophists were intellectuals who were held to use fallacious rhetoric, in order to demonstrate some power over their students. In other words the Sophists used

“a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone” .

The Sophists were also criticised by their peers (Plato in particular) for charging students. Socrates, by comparison, gave free tuition and proposed the use of a logical reasoning in order to remove assumptions about knowledge. In drawing this analogy, Alisan suggested that UX designers should be “authentic to a fault” and generative, not reactive.

Use The 6 Socratic Questions

Anyone who studied design at college will be used to the concept of design critique. There are several good articles about design critiques around, e.g.  CooperUIEThink Vitamin and A List Apart. Alisan proposed a slightly different critical thinking method. He explained how Socrates used 6 questions to encourage his students to question their logic. Alisan suggested UX Designers could make use of the Socratic questioning technique to improve their designs and demonstrated various techniques that could be used:

  1. Clarify concepts – Alisan said it was important to destroy buzzwords. He advised using ‘if’ and ‘then’ arguments in order to ensure concepts are well thought through.
  2. Challenge assumptions – Alisan suggested using a collaborative game to challenge assumptions about users and understand your target users better. The game involves creating three columns on a whiteboard as follows: 1. All people will…., 2. Some people will…,  3. A few people will… Using post-its everyone should stick up their assumptions about how users will interact with your product. Work together to move these around until you have consensus on what users will do. Alisan said that quite often you start by assuming all people will do something, but at the end of the game many of the post-its in the ‘all’ column will have moved to the ‘some’ or ‘few’ column.
  3. Use evidence as the basis of argument – Alisan referred to the ‘A-B-C’ method of analysing behaviour and belief systems which was developed by Albert Ellis, an American Psychologist who created the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy technique. Alisan suggested that UX designers should use the A-B-C model to analyse why users exhibit certain behaviours. This involves looking at the Consequences (C), the Behaviour (B) and tracking back to analyse the Antecedent or motivator (A).
  4. Examine different viewpoints – Alisan suggested designers use a technique called ‘WIR-E-S’ to examine where a design fails. This involves using three columns to analyse a design e.g. 1. why a design is ruined (WIR), 2. provide an explanation (E) and 3. suggestions for improvement (S).
  5. Assess consequences – Alisan suggested measuring improvement to design using a metric like ‘PRODI’ or ‘Predictive Return oDesign Investment’. The Design Council has a useful article about design return on investment.
  6. Ask questions about the questions – for the final Socratic question Alisan suggested using the ‘golden circle‘ technique discussed by Simon Sinek in his TED talk to analyse the how, what and why of what your organisation does.

 Be Social Gadflies

Socrates described himself as a social gadfly whose role it was

“to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth”.

Alisan proposed that at times it is the designer’s role to advance the user (human) condition and, like the Socratic social gadfly, whip the user into action and change the way people think.

Here are my sketchnotes of Alisan’s talk:


UX Cambridge wouldn’t have been possible without the excellent organisation by Mark and Jacqui from Software Acumenand the sponsors: Red GateTelerikLoop 11Bristol Focus and Songkick (who provided a generous bar tab on Thursday evening!). Other event supporters included Rosenfeld MediaInfoQ.comSoftware EastSkills Matter, the Cambridge Usability Group and Creative Front.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Make users happy by focusing on top tasks

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:

  • finding out when your rubbish/recycling bins will be collected
  • checking school term dates
  • renewing a library book
  • paying council tax
  • finding bus routes and times
Disclaimer: in this post I may use the terms ‘citizen’, ‘user’ and ‘customer’ interchangeably.

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.

1. Don’t believe what users say, observe what they do through regular, remote user testing sessions

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.

2. Get control of your content

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?

  • We have thousands of pages and documents, making it increasingly hard for users to come to our website and quickly and easily carry out a task. As Gerry said confusing menus and navigation are one of the prime reasons websites fail.
  • Navigation and content development are not driven by user needs, but rather by the organisation’s perception of what users need. Web content authors and publishers need to own customer journeys. They need access to web analytics and customer feedback. They should carry out or observe user testing sessions to truly understand what customers need, what terminology they use and how they behave.
  • We have noticed that often web pages appear to be submitted for approval then approved almost instantly, showing that our approval process is not really adding any value to the process of web content publishing.

Re-gaining control of your content is not as easy as it sounds. We’re tackling this by:

  • Asking CMS authors who manage sections of the website to carry out content audits and identify what content to delete and improve. I’ve created a spreadsheet to do this based on the method outlined in Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy book and I’ll write a separate blog post in due course on how we’re approaching this.
  • Re-defining what kind of content governance is needed e.g. greater control through centralisation and defining specific processes and skills that are required.

3. Re-design your information architecture so there is just one way to navigate to top tasks

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:

4. Don’t let the tiny tasks get in the way of the top tasks

“At night the tiny tasks go to bed and dream about being top tasks”

Gerry McGovern

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.

Top Task management - an iterative process

But the more you do it, the easier it gets.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

The invisible website

The Invisible Computer by Don NormanRecently someone asked me what websites I like from a user experience design perspective. I couldn’t think. My mind went blank! Which struck me as weird, given that I use websites all the time and I’ve worked in web design and development for around 15 years. Surely some websites should stand out as being well designed, as being inspirational for having a great user experience?

Reflecting on why nothing stood out in my mind when I was put on the spot, I remembered a famous book by Don Norman. In ‘The Invisible Computer‘ Norman argues that good technology design should be invisible to the user:

The current infrastructure for personal computers has outlived its usefulness. Although it was well designed for the problems and technology of the 1980s, it no longer works when faced with the problems and technologies of the 21st century. Moreover, the technology of the personal computer gets ever more complex every year. There is no way out, for it is caught in the tyranny of its own success, of its own marketing, and its business model that demands ever more features every year, thereby ever more complexity.

The only way out is through a disruptive technology, through a break with tradition to a technology that becomes invisible, that starts off focusing upon simplicity, joy of ownership, joy of use: a human-centered development philosophy.

So rather than thinking about websites and web applications I admire for good design or inspiration, I reflected on five of the sites and applications I enjoy using and thought about what makes them a pleasure to use. Just as Norman proposed in ‘The Invisible Computer’, the fact that some websites are simple, and a joy to use, indicates they are well designed and a user centred design process is key to the success of the design.

Google Maps

Google Maps

I once thought “what’s not to like?” about Google Maps. It has some great features and a very clear interface. Street view is particularly cool and I can get lost for ages looking at random pictures. Using the ‘directions’ functionality is easy and flexible, suggesting the quickest route but allowing you to drag routes around on the map and choose other options or add additional places en-route. It’s easy to print add edit your maps. I also enjoy creating my own maps and using the API, Google Maps also integrates well with open source platforms such as WordPress. These days I tend to find myself using Bing Maps quite a bit, for the Ordnance Survey Maps and Birds Eye Views which are sadly not included in Google Maps.



In terms of house hunting Rightmove stands head and shoulders above the rest. Ok it has some quirks, but the home page is nice and clear, the search works well and the details and photos are laid out clearly. In terms of personalisation, I love the draw-a-search feature which combined with alerts and saved searches work brilliantly and makes house hunting a breeze. The mobile version of the site also works very well.

John Lewis

John Lewis

The John Lewis website is a stalwart of e-commerce sites. Faceted search that’s been configured to work well. Nice clean design. Good information. A bit like a visit to a physical store.

The Guardian

Guardian Data Store

I’ve always liked the current Guardian website. Especially the fonts. And the colours. I don’t know why, but I do. I also like the mouseovers on images, the ‘in pictures’ feature and the way that live news has been developed. The Guardian satellite sites have a good visual tie-in with the main site, so you never feel far away from the ‘mother brand’. I particularly the Guardian data store and some of the excellent data visualisations.

User Voice

User Voice

UserVoice is an ingenious social tool which has a variety of uses. Originally designed to enable a website or software user community to suggest changes or new features and vote for them, the tool has adapted well to being used for civic engagement or to generate ideas or concepts when collaborating with other people on projects.

So in summary, I found there are websites and web applications I admire from a user experience perspective, because as a user I enjoy using and interacting with them. They minimise frustration and maximise the experience of finding information, carrying out particular tasks or sharing and communicating with other people. Thanks to Don for that bit of much needed inspiration.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Personas for open data

I’ve often felt that there is a lack of focus on user needs in open data development. But recently I came across a really interesting post that demonstrates a more user-centred approach to open data development. Tim Davies has blogged about how personas are being used to help developers of open data applications understand the type of people who might use their applications and typical user scenarios. In Tim’s words:

We’re creating a set of ‘open personae’ – imaginary profiles of potential users of applications and resources built with IATI data, designed to help techies and developers gain insights into the people who might benefit from the data, and to help provide a clearer idea of some of the challenges applications need to meet.

IATI stands for the International Aid Transparency Initiative and the personas are being developed collaboratively by volunteers involved in AidInfoLabs in Google Docs. Data mash-ups and visualisations can throw new light on complex social problems, by making data more accessible and understandable. But as Tim outlines the design of an application can often focus on the data, rather than user needs:

When open data is the primary raw material for a project, that data can exert a powerful influence in shaping the design of the project and its outputs. The limitations of the data quickly become accepted as limitations of the application; the structure of the data is often presented to the user, regardless of whether this is the structure of information they need to be able to use the application effectively.

Storytelling through a fictional ‘persona’ is a very powerful way to build empathy with users. It would be great to see the IATI personas being fed by demographic and qualitative research data over time. And structured to show specific user goals and attributes.

For anyone interested in the creation and use of personas and storytelling techniques in user experience, there are a couple of great books I’d recommend:

The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web, by Steve Mulder;


Storytelling for User Experience, by Whitney Quesenbury and Kevin Brooks.

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Going undercover

Do you sometimes feel like you are the only one who thinks it’s important to find out how your customers use your organisation’s website? Have you ever read user experience design books where you think “yep that all sounds great, if you’ve got loads of time and a big budget to boot, but how am I going to get agreement from stakeholders to spend time and money on that?”

If you feel like you’re struggling to do user experience design *properly* then you should probably read Undercover User Experience Design by Cennydd Bowles and James Box, who both work at the well respected Clearleft, published within the New Riders Voices that Matter series. It’s an easy, enjoyable read and if you’ve ever struggled with introducing user experience design methods or culture into your organisation, you’ll get loads out of this book.

The authors provide clear descriptions of a number of UX methods and deliverables and demonstrate how they can be used in context to better understand your users and design for them. But they also tackle organisational culture and how to work with other stakeholders, including project team members and senior managers. And no matter how good your research or designs are, you won’t succeed if you can’t work collaboratively and influence your colleagues or clients.

I’ve worked in the private and public sector, agency side and in-house. I’ve always worn multiple hats in project teams. I’ve been the project manager, the developer, the user researcher, the information architect, the user experience designer and the product owner. I found this book really pragmatic because Bowles and Fox don’t assume you are a UX consultant working agency side (aka an ‘outie’), but also provide advice for those working in-house (an ‘innie’).

What they really drive home is this: if you’re passionate about user experience and you care enough to try to make a difference, you can do. By going undercover, being disruptive and getting results.

On the companion website to the book they have re-produced the book’s manifesto from chapter one, which reminds me of the Agile manifesto. I particularly like the statement ” UX is a mindset, not a process—it lasts all the way until the site is live, and after”.

“We believe in going undercover. We don’t mean you should skulk around in the dark. As an undercover user experience designer, your mission is to get people excited about UX without them realizing what you’ve done. Unless you’re an expensive consultant or a senior manager, you won’t do this by knocking on the CEO’s door and demanding change. User experience design is disruptive. It asks difficult questions. Good-enough managers in good-enough companies don’t want you to rock the boat; they’re busy worrying about meeting next month’s targets.

We believe in introducing UX from the ground up. Sneak UX into your daily work, prove its value, and spread the message. Results are more persuasive than plans.

We believe change comes through small victories. Putting users at the heart of a business is a huge cultural change. It takes years. But you’ll be surprised what you can achieve with focus, patience, and persistence.

We believe in delivery, not deliverables. Some people practice user-scented design, not user-centered design. They churn out documents—sitemaps, wireframes, specifications—but they’re not interested in what happens next. UX is a mindset, not a process—it lasts all the way until the site is live, and after.

We believe good design today is better than great design next year. There’s no such thing as perfection in design, particularly on a medium as fluid as the web. You’re not here to impress other designers; your job is to make your users’ lives better.

We believe in working with people, not against them. Just as we empathize with users, we must respect and understand our colleagues. We reject elitism and accept that compromise is healthy. Passion is fine; zealotry is not.

We believe in action, not words. Introducing UX into your company is a lot of work. No one will do it for you, so you’d better get cracking. Remember, it’s often easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

If you’re a seasoned UX professional then you may feel you can do all this and more standing on your head. But I would highly recommend Undercover User Experience Design as a good read nonetheless. And for those ‘innies’ among us, particularly those who often feel like a lone voice championing the user, this may well be the book for you and your colleagues. I’ve already lent my copy to two people in my team!

ByMichele Ide-Smith

UX takes centre stage in Martha Lane Fox review

I’ve been a bit slow off the mark to read Martha Lane Fox’s review of Directgov and recommendations for government digital services. The review is centred around the principle that the UK Government needs to adopt a service led culture to delivering public services online.

Whilst this report is not a policy or an implementation plan it does represent an important milestone for Government webbies, in particular those who champion user experience. I know DirectGov take user experience design (UX) very seriously and have already committed to making UX a central part of their processes. So whilst it didn’t come as a surprise to me, I was pleased to see Martha Lane Fox’s robust recommendations and multiple references to UX principles and practises in the document. In particular the suggestion that DirectGov should have more powers to enforce quality UX, becoming the:

“citizens’ champion with sharp teeth” for transactional service delivery.

The report also highlights some very sensible approaches to web service delivery, such as the syndication of content and standardisation and development of open APIs to enable government services to be delivered by 3rd party organisations. However, I am not going to cover those recommendations in this post, as they have been well covered elsewhere, by Steph Gray and Neil Williams. Another good read is Simon Dickinson, who questions if the recommendations will be taken on board by Government, citing the rather non-committal response by Francis Maud.

I have picked out and categorised the key points in the review document that demonstrate the strong recommendations regarding UX:

1. Consistency of user experience

A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.

A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.

2. Development of a unified brand and focus on users’ mental models, rather than Government department structures:

Ultimately it makes sense to the user for all Government digital services to reside under a single brand. The user should not have to navigate the departmental structure of Government before finding the service or content what they need.

3. Use of evaluation techniques like user testing:

any potential change must be tested first with users

4. A focus on users’ information seeking behaviour:

we should be ensuring that citizens find the information they want as quickly as  possible wherever they are on the web.

5. Centralised governance of user experience:

a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels

6. Implementation of standards that promote content strategy, usability, accessibility and user research (italics added for emphasis):

  • Content standards:  including format, taxonomy, meta-tagging and  rules for syndication partners;
  • Design standards: including usability, accessibility and  look and  feel
  • Process standards: including content creation, content review processes, SLA and partner processes;
  • Customer standards: including feedback, consultation,  insight, analyticssegmentation and  registration.

Overall I think the report is very positive, clear and to the point. I have limited knowledge of how central Government web delivery is governed and managed. But reading other posts (mentioned above) throws some light on the political implications of this review. But we will need to watch and wait to see what happens next.

In sharp contrast, local government are being asked to deliver or commission services with an increasingly local focus. The forthcoming Localism Bill will throw more light on what Localism means for Councils next week. But at this stage it is not clear what impact Government’s Localism agenda will have on the user experience of digital, local, public services. Is it likely LocalDirectGov will have a more significant role in improving the user experience of local services?

ByMichele Ide-Smith

UX Zeitgest

Ever wondered what’s topics are hot in the UX community? What design problems are those clever UX types spending all their time on?

The UX Zeitgeist from leading UX publishers Rosenfeld Media pulls together UX topics, books and people and ranks them based on the number of times they are mentioned in blogs, reviews and other places across the web as well, as well as in UX books. The UX Zeitgeist also allows users from the UX community to participate, by nominating, to boost rankings.

I really like the ‘mindshare’ view, which shows you who are the biggest contributors to UX knowledge within the community. I don’t know how accurate it is, but it’s a great idea seeing as many people are easily persuaded by social influence.

Here’s a screencast from Louis Rosenfeld, explaining the concept:

I’d love to see a similar Gov2.0 Zeitgeist!

ByMichele Ide-Smith

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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