In autumn last year I started leading on a project to redevelop DCC online information about schools and services for children and families. This covered a huge area of our website and existing information was split in two very separate sections – ‘children and families’ and ‘education and learning’ – in line with distinct council service areas.
As a parent myself I’d always felt that that the navigation (let alone design) of the existing site wasn’t aimed at the needs of users – parents, carers and young people. Simple tasks that you would expect to be able to carry out easily, such as finding school term dates, applying for a school place or searching for childcare meant numerous clicks or wading through pages of unnecessary service jargon to find what you were looking for.
These pages, like the rest of our old site, were published in Livelink, the clunky content management system from which we are gradually moving all DCC content out of and into Wordpress.
From the word go (again, probably because I’m a parent) I felt emotionally connected to the project and had a deep sense of wanting to get it right. My daughter had just turned four, so as a family we were about to begin the process of applying for a primary school place for September 2015. Early on in the project I also found out I was expecting another baby so knew that local early years services and childcare options would be high on my list of priorities again soon enough!
This project is one of the first that we have followed the Government Digital Service (GDS) phases of developing digital services – discovery, alpha, beta and live – from end to end. We hope to set a precedent for all of our digital transformation projects in future.
A couple of months in to the project I wrote a blog post covering the discovery phase; about how we collected data from our frontline customer service call centre in Tiverton and through Google Analytics. I also started looking at user profiles and customer journeys:
We began to explore the idea of bringing all information aimed at parents and young people under one user-friendly umbrella, rather than retaining separate service-driven sections. This is something I’d always felt strongly about, it just seemed obvious and common sense. I looked at other authorities who were also transforming their websites. Some of these, such as Kent and West Sussex were merging their education and children/families information in a similar way.
I carried out a complete audit of all the pages falling under the existing ‘education and learning’ and ‘children and families’ bracket. It was interesting to see what information was actually aimed at the public and what was statutory information or aimed at professionals. This helped us prioritise the areas to focus on.
I also drew up a rough list of potential top-level ‘landing pages’ and the child pages that would sit beneath them.
Looking back, our discovery and alpha stages seemed to blend in to each other. I don’t think there was really a point where we sat down and said ‘right – we’re now starting the alpha phase’. I now think it may have been more helpful at the start of the project to set out distinct timeframes, which would have given us a clearer idea of when we hoped to finish one phase and start the next?
We started to think more about user journeys and the site navigation – building wire frames and early prototypes of the new site. We also called on more people with different skills to join the project. Matt and Tim started working on the development of the WordPress site and Wendy on the design. This included responsive designs for smartphones and tablets.
The data collected from the call listening exercises had proved invaluable in determining areas that needed to be prioritised in the navigation of the site. Members of the public had phoned the customer service centre with similar queries over and over again – around the topics of school transport, finding childcare, school admissions, checking term dates etc. We knew which key tasks needed to be part of the top-level navigation.
I was also keen to implement a secondary ‘age-group’ navigation. I’d first come across this idea when researching websites for a CIM course I went on in 2013 and it had always appealed to me as a really accessible and user-focused way for parents to navigate the site.
At this stage it was really useful to just use post-it notes on A3 paper to develop ideas for navigation:
I then used this as the basis for wire frame designs which gave Wendy something to work from:
In the meantime, Patrick and I were trying to identify content-owners and make a start on editing and streamlining the masses of information on the existing site.
Content-editing went into overdrive in December when we were told about an upcoming Ofsted inspection of our children and families online information, which was due to take place at some point in the new year.
In terms of the project, it was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it gave us some clout when chasing content-owners – just mentioning the word Ofsted was sometimes enough to get people to check and update their content and/or let us know if it was out of date and needed to be deleted. On the other hand it meant I spent a LOT of time trying to identify the more elusive content-owners and pinning them down for a decision about whether their pages needed updating. Without the inspection looming we would have had much more time to break the content down and attack it on our own terms, which would have meant I could have concentrated on the development and design aspects of the site at the same time – unfortunately this all fell by the wayside until we reached the inspection deadline.
Once Ofsted was out of the way, we could really start to focus on the beta phase. Matt and Tim had started to develop the site on beta.devon.gov.uk, adding wizardry such as the age-group navigation and applying Wendy’s design to give us a better idea of how the finished site would look.
Patrick and I continued to make good progress transferring edited content over to the beta site and we started sending out page links to the relevant services and gathering feedback.
It’s worth noting that the site’s working title up to this point had been ‘Education and Children’. However, having looked at best practice elsewhere we made the decision to change to ‘Education and Families’, which better reflected the site content and needs of the audience.
Beta was probably the phase of the project we took the longest time over. There were areas of content that we had perhaps underestimated in terms of sheer volume of information. Two major areas that we were determined to simplify were school admissions and school transport, with me tackling the former and Patrick the latter.
I really wanted to make applying for a school places as clear and straightforward as possible and was inspired by other authorities, in particular Kent and West Sussex (again). The process of applying for either primary or secondary is limited to a single page – the user toggles between tabs to view the various stages of the application process:
I’m really pleased overall with how the school admissions area of the site has turned out. Early feedback has been extremely positive – in particular from our School Admissions team who feel that it’s a huge improvement:
Patrick made good use of guides to help simplify and streamline school transport information. In early years and childcare, the DISC (Devon’s family information service) factsheets work in a similar way. Information is displayed as manageable webpages, with searchable content (unlike a PDF). Matt had previously developed a function for adult social care where each factsheet webpage can be generated as a PDF (with the option of standard, large and giant print) – so this was replicated for the DISC factsheets.
With all public content transferred across, the last couple of weeks of beta were all about final tweaks. However, it’s these little things that are the icing on the cake in terms of the user-friendliness of the site, such as:
- The ‘show more’ accordian function on the schools home page
- Prominent transaction buttons which encourage the user to ‘do something’
- ‘In this section’ sidebar menus where relevant
- Making sure relevant pages appear when using age-group navigation
If we’d had more time perhaps we could have done more user testing during the beta phase, but we made the decision not to because we’d carried out extensive user research during the discovery phase.
The new and responsive Education and Families website went live (pretty much on schedule – we were aiming for end of May!) on 2 June 2015.
The launch was communicated to all staff, links from the DCC home page were updated and redirects from the old Livelink ‘education and learning’ and ‘children and families’ pages put in place.
Our priority throughout has been information for the public – parents, carers and young people. Our next task will be to look at related professional and provider information still in Livelink, including information for childcare providers and schools.
For me, it’s a great relief to see the website go live as I go on maternity leave in mid-June and I was determined to see this project through to the end.
So far – feedback has been positive – but we would love to know what you think, whether you’re a DCC member of staff, work for another local authority or are a member of the public. Feel free to comment below or tweet us. It would also be interesting to hear from teams in other authorities or public organisations that are following the GDS service design phases.