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www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - The importance of Eccles cakes to channel shift, or the value of less important content for search visibility

simon gray - 2013-07-31, 14:20:12

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

In thinking about the future shapes of our council websites, we all of course understand the need to perform brutally honest ROTE analyses of every single page on our sites, and likewise we’re all geared up for restructuring our websites and the content in them according to properly thought through content strategies.

So we know we need to get rid of those pointless pages about stuff the council has nothing to do with such as the history of Birmingham’s canals, or the history and recipe behind Eccles cakes, right?

Not so fast!

Both of those pages – canals on our own website, and Eccles cakes on the website for Salford City Council, are both in the local history sections of the website, and whilst some people might suggest the responsibility of councils for the curation and dissemination of local history might be tenuous in the modern era, it still does remain a function of many council library services. So you might believe – as actually I did until relatively recently – that whilst this content belongs on the web somewhere such as Wikipedia and could indeed still be maintained by an appropriate member of council staff in council time, since this kind of thing doesn’t represent a part of the core council services we need to promote to the public it doesn’t belong on the main council website.

Not so fast!

In the last three months, our canals landing page has received 1,528 pageviews out of the total of 9,602,547, or 0.02% of the total. Not massive overall, by any means, but over a period of three months, 500 pageviews a month is still a reasonably sized number, especially when you realise that’s 17 pageviews a day.

So why are the pages important? After all, who goes to the council website looking for information about canals and Eccles cakes?

If you type ‘Canals in Birmingham‘ into Google you’ll see why instantly – at the time of writing, our canals landing page is the number one result. Similarly, a Google search for ‘Eccles cakes‘ has the Salford page in the still reasonably respectable position of number seven on the results page.

In a nutshell, these pages provide our sites as a whole with valuable Google-juice – they’re important items of content relevant to our cities, which a search for information about those subjects leads people to our sites; people who might not otherwise have visited our sites, and people who once they are here, a well-constructed, well-laid-out site with good cross-sell links can remind them that as well as finding a recipe for their favourite morning snack, they can also sort out their council tax, report a pothole, and book a bulky waste collection, and all the other core services we are trying to channel shift them from the telephone to the website to carry out. Not necessarily now whilst they’re still thinking about breakfast, but in the future when they need it.

The Presidents of Google-juice are Woodlands Junior School in Kent – they’ve got a separate learning resources site  packed with so much information a surprising number of Google searches brings up their site in the top ten, even on content that has no relation to their function as a school – they positively own the front page on a search for ‘British life and culture‘, with the top seven results all pointing to their sites!

So returning to the Trivial content in our ROTE analysis, whilst we still need to be vicious in declaring truly trivial content as ready for deletion, before spiking anything out of hand, stop and think – ‘could this content be drawing people to the site through search queries? Could it be improved in any way to better bring people in?’ A page which contains nothing more than a graphic of a poster for a campaign will probably indeed be categorised as trivial to be deleted, as might a page containing no more than a handful of vague facts about the campaign’s topic which have themselves been sourced from a Google search on the grounds of being unlikely to generate inbound traffic from searches – but if the page has something important, relevant, authoritative, and most importantly unique to say on the topic, then the chances are it will still have some value – so long as it requires little by way of ongoing maintenance, and its existence isn’t likely to get in the way of visitors accessing the more important content we know we need to prioritise.

Comments on the original article

  1. eamon murphy says:

    August 30, 2013 at 11:27 am

    An interesting piece which makes for quite a compelling argument.

    But not so fast!

    The bit about the Presidents of Google-juice ie. Woodlands Junior School in Kent is more than a little disturbing for what I hope are obvious reasons i.e. if we are all to aim to become “Presidents of Google-juice” what a horrendous picture that could present for the future use of the internet?

    Nothing wrong with Eccles cakes or Birmingham Canals and I know society generally has and is moving to a ‘one shop for everything’ mentality [which has of course seen so many of our small and medium sized specialist traders go out of business and undermined real competition – another gripe of mine] but everything in it’s rightful place is what I say.

    So to cut to the chase I think you’ve got it wrong – even though I like eccles cakes myself I couldn’t eat a thousand…………sometimes less really is more!

    • Simon Gray says:

      August 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      “The bit about the Presidents of Google-juice ie. Woodlands Junior School in Kent is more than a little disturbing for what I hope are obvious reasons i.e. if we are all to aim to become “Presidents of Google-juice” what a horrendous picture that could present for the future use of the internet?”

      Indeed – and in fact Google themselves are wise to techniques Search Engine Optimisation consultants use to artificially massage content to the top of the list, and regularly change their algorithms as they spot what artificial techniques are in vogue at the time; the key to good SEO remains writing good copy, with the key information packed into the lede paragraph, and proper HTML coding.

      The difference between the Birmingham and Salford cases and the Woodlands case, though, is the niche content we are using and Salford are using is actually relevant – Eccles cakes are relevant to Salford and canals are relevant to Birmingham – so it’s not random content in order to scattergun appearance in unrelated searches, but rather, further enriching the search pool with relevant content.

  2. eamon murphy says:

    August 30, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Hm – I think the word “relevant” is critical here, it clearly means one thing to you and another to me?
    Would you class Aston Villa and Birmingham City Football clubs as relevant to a Birmingham City Council website? and are they more or less relevant than the canals of our great city?
    It’s all quite subjective really and with the seriously diminishing resources available to ‘the public sector’ my feeling is that lines have to be drawn in the sand. Let’s not forget that creating content is not the end [or even the beginning of the end] but everything has to be reviewed, checked etc. on an ongoing basis…..and with depleted resources hmmm ???
    I stand by my eccles cake comment – less is sometimes more.

    • Simon Gray says:

      August 30, 2013 at 2:45 pm

      Well, in the context of a section about sport or leisure in Birmingham, if the relevant web editor together with their management structure thought that it would be a good addition to the portfolio of pages about Birmingham’s sport and leisure offering to include information about significant sports teams in the city, then I wouldn’t challenge them – after all, how many people come to the city every weekend to attend their games? Similarly, those football teams, and Warwickshire County Cricket Club, are important aspects of the city’s history, so again I don’t see why historical information about them shouldn’t appear in the local history section of the site if the web editor concerned thought so.

      I think we do need to be careful about not being parochial in what information we cover – after all, our purpose is to provide information and service to citizens, so if we out of principle restrict our information only to the services we provide ourselves, then we do a disservice to the people relying on us – as an alternative example, if our information about parking in Birmingham is restricted to only council parking spaces, then we might get slightly more revenue from people who consequently don’t go to a NCP car park, but by doing so we’re serving ourselves, not serving our residents and visitors.

      In some of the other articles about design, one thrust of the comments made has been that a council website shouldn’t just restrict itself to being a portal for people to pay their council tax, report potholes, and complain about their bins not being collected – the council website should also be a showcase for the city itself, reflecting something of what it’s like to (and I loathe this phraseology myself) live, work, and play in the city. Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety, recently said ‘In five to ten years time, we won’t have council websites – the website will be the council’; and as more services become contracted out or commissioned, surely it would be silly of us to piece by piece remove the information about them from the website?

      I think another misconception is also being raised – that the more content the site has, the more expensive it is to maintain. Yes indeed, the planning, licensing applications, and planned streetworks weekly lists work out particularly resource-intensive to create, review, and maintain, but the histories of the canals and of Eccles cakes are broadly fixed; no new canals are likely to be built in the next ten years, and no new developments in baking technology are likely to affect the recipe for Eccles cakes – so the pages, once created, need little ongoing maintenance. Similarly a page about the city’s famous sports teams would probably only need updating on the comparatively rare occasions they won a glittering prize!

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Current thinking about mobile device access of council websites

simon gray - 2013-06-20, 17:13:18

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

On 11 June 2013, Socitm – the national association of people working in the field of public sector online services – held an event to present their latest findings in the area of how people are using mobile devices to access council websites.

The headline fact that was revealed was that during the first five months of 2013, 27% of visits to council websites were from mobile devices – ie, 27% of the people looking at and doing things on council websites were by people using mobile phones and tablets, as opposed to on laptops and desktop computers.

Rubbish, leisure, and schools were the top three areas which people were more likely to look at on mobile rather than desktop, with libraries and housing following behind. Transport information, roads and streets, jobs, council tax, and planning also all featured high in the list of services accessed with a mobile device, but at roughly the same proportion as desktop users. The other usual high hitters were on the list as well, but interestingly parking – a service one might have thought particularly appropriate for mobile – had about 4% fewer accesses from mobile devices than from desktops. What the data didn’t explicitly show was what particular schools information people were looking for on their mobiles, but we can infer from the timing that it was mostly people looking for information about school closures during the winter (and early spring) snow events.

What the data also doesn’t yet show is the balance between people using mobile phones and people using tablets – this could be quite interesting, because for the most part tablet browsers behave more like desktop browsers rather than phone browsers (which has relevance to page design and content), but the main usage scenarios are different – for example, mobile phones will be most often used out in the mobile arena (on a bus, walking down the street, in the pub or a restaurant, or at work for personal browsing purposes etc), whilst tablets will be most often used at home. But the difference between tablet usage at home and desktop usage is most people with tablets will likely have them in handy locations where they themselves are – eg, on the coffee table by the sofa, or in the kitchen, or on the bedside table, whilst conversely most people’s desktop computers are in a separate room in the house, and even their laptops when not kept in the laptop bag will still need to be turned on before use. The implications of this are that the number of ‘impulse’ website visits are likely to increase as tablet market penetration increases, and we need to be able to meet that demand by being able to offer the richer experience than phones that tablets can provide, whilst still accounting for the fact that even on a retina display iPad 4 you can’t cram as much information on the screen as on a desktop computer with a 21″ monitor. Socitm are going to look at seeing if there are easy ways in which that extra data can be determined.

People using mobile devices compared to desktop users are much more likely to be looking for information than wanting to carry out some form of transaction, be that literally paying for something or completing a form to report or book something – on desktops, 55% of visitors are looking for information, 26% want to complete a transaction, and 19% want to do something else, but on mobiles 64% are seeking information compared to 23% wanting to perform a transaction – so whilst it’s right for us to continue to work to ensure transactional pages offer increasingly good customer experiences on mobile devices, we need to never forget the purpose of a website being to provide information to people, especially for mobile users. When one considers it will always be much easier to make a phone call with a mobile phone than to fill in a form on one, this isn’t too surprising. We also learned from one council that people looking at pages about actual physical locations appear quite high in their mobile access statistics.

One surprising piece of information we learned is ‘task failures’ (Socitm-speak for people coming to a website and being unable to do or find what they went there for) are only slightly higher on mobile than desktop; unsurprisingly, visitor satisfaction is significantly lower from mobile users than from desktop users – as the localgovweb community, between us we all have a lot more work to do to improve the mobile experience for people. An interesting addendum to the visitor satisfaction statistic is that it has been steadily dropping overall over the last few years, during a period when most councils have been working hard to try to make their websites better for people! Could this be due to the various experiments different councils have been trying in order to break away from the old LGNL navigation paradigm? Could it be due to some councils trying to artificially massage their sites in order to gain favourable results in the annual Better Connected report (against Socitm’s own advice, I might add) to the exclusion of the rest of their content? Or could it be due to the fact that users are simply becoming more sophisticated and expecting more and better from their council websites? In our own case, we know that some of the dissatisfaction logged against our website turns out not to be dissatisfaction with the site, but the service – so for example, there aren’t many jobs on our website, but a large number of people log that in the exit questionnaire as a complaint about the website rather than a complaint about there not being very many jobs at all! Whatever the reason for the drop, it’s a challenge for us again from the wider community to look more closely at the data to put a v in the line and make it rise again.

What does this mean for mobile strategy for the future?

The first point is there should be no mobile strategy. Or rather, we should not think about mobile strategy in isolation – we need to focus on creating and implementing overall digital strategies, which should encompass mobile strategies as part of that as well as other digital access channels. That might seem to be stating the obvious, but since many councils are still at the early stages of actually strategising their digital presences (as opposed to just getting on with it), it’s a point worth emphasising!

We were warned against making too many unwarranted assumptions about people’s mobile usage habits without data to back those assumptions up – for example, we can’t assume that everybody wants to do location-specific things with their mobile devices; we can focus on giving those tasks an especially good mobile experience, but not at the expense of ensuring non-location-specific tasks also give a good mobile experience. As noted above, the middle ground of tablet devices allows for a near-desktop experience with the convenience of doing so on a device which is usually immediately to hand and switched on, at home rather than out and about. And just because people are on the move when using their phones, that doesn’t always mean they’re in a hurry – although if people are physically on the move, any mobile system needs to be able to cope with signal dropout gracefully.

We need to be pragmatic about what might be achievable – but we also should be creative in our pragmatism. For example the civically-engaged person walking along the street spotting a planning or licensing application notice on a lamppost might want to log the url for more information on their phone, but it would be unreasonable of them to expect the full experience of being able to open the .pdfs of the detailed drawings and view them on their 4″ screen and post detailed comments back using their phone keyboard. But a creative use of the technology across a wider digital strategy would allow the user to start the process of looking at the planning application on their phone, logging it for future reference, and then being able to easily complete the process later on resuming from where they left off when they get to a desktop computer. 90% of people do indeed use multiple devices to accomplish an online goal, so we need to make that easier for them.

We know that 92% of UK adults personally own some form of mobile phone, and 39% of us access the internet on one – 64% of us with smartphones access the internet on it at least once a day. Actual mobile usage patterns depend on a number of factors – demographics, local or national news events, time of day, time of year, even the weather. We especially saw the effect of weather on usage during the snow events, as people found it much easier to check for school closures and other disruption first thing in the morning on their phones than on their computers. And in more isolated communities, power cuts can make mobile the only option – in those instances, people need to get essential information as quickly and easily as possible, so they can conserve their precious battery power.

And rather than thinking about hiding content and components in a form from a mobile view, we should think the other way around – is this extra content necessarily relevant for the desktop version? In our own thinking about content strategy we suggest a complete separation of service information from the information about the policy behind the service provision, as can be demonstrated in our recently created suite of pages about bus lane enforcement. So if a paragraph of text looks like needless fluff on the mobile screen, then it’s also needless fluff on the desktop; if it’s content which is secondary to the primary purpose of the page, don’t assume desktop users will be interested in it but mobile users not – separate it out into another page.

And finally, as we see the trend move in the direction of mobile access taking over (but – emphatically – never replacing) desktop access, we should turn our thinking about how our page layouts are constructed – rather than planning for graceful degradation of layouts as the user’s screen gets smaller as most mobile-friendly sites are currently built, we instead need to move in the direction of planning and designing for progressive enhancement, starting with the assumption of most users’ screens being 2″ wide in portrait orientation, progressively growing to 21″ landscape – and also along the way accounting for the increase of laptop screens which are wider and shallower than the 16:9 aspect ratio we’ve become accustomed to on desktops.

You can see the presentations containing sources for some of the facts quoted on Socitm’s page for the event.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - User testing customer journeys – it’s not just about the top tasks

simon gray - 2013-05-24, 15:38:23

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

When designing a new website, especially when proposing a radically new menu system (‘information architecture‘), it’s important to test with one’s potential users that the design and navigation proposed actually works.

There are many pairs of pliers in the usability tester’s toolbox to help them with this – card sorting exercises for navigation, eye tracking studies for layout, unstructured sessions with or without interviews to get a gut feeling for the level of success and/or to look out for potential problems outside the planned testing, and the setting of specific tasks to test participants to establish (a) if they can complete them at all, and (b) how easy it was for them, what their ‘customer journey’ through the site to task completion was.

The prevailing wisdom in the Local Government digital community, as pioneered by Socitm, is the Top Tasks Methodology – whereby using your access and search statistics you identify the 10 most frequently accessed tasks on your site, and optimise your home page and search engine optimisation around that. Socitm themselves with their annual Better Connected assessment of council websites expand beyond some of the obvious top tasks by measuring a different selection each year.

On our existing home page we have implemented our very top top tasks in the upper right column of the page labelled ‘popular pages’, and in the lower half of the page (which we refer to internally as the connecting wall) we list the major service groups and the top tasks for those:

We deviate slightly from literal tasks in areas such as council tax – whilst a task might be defined as ‘paying your council tax’, we know from our own statistics that a sizeable number of website visitors are also interested in other council tax-related tasks (reporting a change in circumstances, applying for council tax benefit, etc) so it makes sense to lead visitors from the home page to the council tax landing page and let them choose their own task from there.

On our proposed interim layout we retain that list of top popular pages on the left of the home page, and the service top tasks are moved to the new segmentation landing pages, and also to megamenus as part of the menu bars on the top row. We’ll clearly need to user test these customer tasks to ensure they’re as obvious to complete as we’d assume they would be.

It would be easy to stop there and think job done, safe in the knowledge that we’ve catered for that majority (the notional 80%) of customers who are after that minority (the notional 20%) of the content. But don’t forget, one of the intended outcomes of this project is to ensure that niche content is just as easy to find as majority content, without the presence of both interfering with each other. If we make it incredibly easy to report a missed bin collection, but it’s near impossible for somebody to find information about the city’s Archaeology Strategy (highly niche content, maybe, but essential reading for any organisation planning a multi-million pound building development), or Strategy for Economic Growth (again niche, but important for anybody responsible for allocating multi-millions of pounds of investment funding in the city) then by our own objectives we will have failed.

So yes, we’ll be testing user-testing our top tasks to ensure people can complete them – but we’ll be treating these as control groups; if these tests fail then there will be something catastrophic in our interaction design.

We will also need to user test the journeys to the niche pages above – and, indeed, we need to ensure that middle ground content – say, school admissions procedures, the noise nuisance report page, and how to make a freedom of information request, is also properly user tested, to ensure those tasks are also easy to complete, and that making those tasks easy to complete doesn’t make it difficult to complete the top tasks.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Marketing campaigns on the home page

simon gray - 2013-02-20, 10:12:31

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

As well as the issue of images on the home page, another issue which has been the subject of a fair amount of internal discussion is the one of marketing campaigns on the home page.

Our current site – like almost every other council website in the country – has an area on the home page devoted marketing campaigns, such as where we promote our commercial property portfolio, advice about staying warm in winter, or information about public question time at full council meetings.

It’s part of the received wisdom of how a council website is constructed that the council has messages it needs to communicate to the public, and the place for it to communicate those messages is via the home page, because the home page is the most important page of the site, isn’t it?

We now challenge that received wisdom.

We have a number of evidential reasons to challenge the notion that the best place to market to our audience is via the home page, plus the consideration of what is the established marketing good practice of segmenting your market and targeting your campaign material according to your audience. Clearly, mixing messages about democracy, winter warmth advice for the elderly, and commercial property to let all in the same campaign space flies in the face of that good practice.

Looking at the actual statistical evidence, of the 34,400,030 pageviews our main website has had in the last 12 months, only 1,617,239 of them – 4.7% – have been of the home page. Looking at the first page people arrive on the site, you might expect that most people indeed arrive at the site on the home page. Wrong! Of the 9,049,851visits the site has received in the last 12 months, only 1,098,829 of them, or 12%, have arrived at the site via the home page.

The majority of our site visitors – 68.37% of them – arrived arrived at the site via a search engine. 18.24% were via referrals, and only 13.38% were ‘direct’ traffic, and of the direct traffic only 273,501 of the visits were of people actually typing www.birmingham.gov.uk into their browser bar; the overwhelming majority of visitors typed keywords relating to the service they required into Google, which took them straight to the information they were looking for bypassing the home page entirely.

Even of those views of the home page itself, whilst we can’t know how many visitors read and digested any of the information in the home page campaigns, we can tell how many people went to the pages referenced by them. Looking at some of our current home page campaigns over the last three months:

  • Stay Warm, Stay Well – 748 pageviews,
  • LGBT Network – 116 pageviews,
  • Birmingham Bulletin – 4,609 pageviews (this page is actually extensively marketed elsewhere, too),
  • Fostering –551 pageviews,
  • Question time – 225 pageviews, and
  • Cycling routes – 461 pageviews

During that three month period, the home page itself received 380,378 pageviews; removing the anomoly of the Bulletin campaign has an average pageviews for the campaigns of 420, giving a maximum potential clickthrough rate for those campaigns of 0.001262, or 0.1%.

Clearly from a marketing perspective, marketing via the home page is a sub-optimal strategy.

Our proposed alternative is to shift the campaign boxes from the home page to each segment landing page – so campaigns of interest to residents will be on the residents landing page, campaigns for business on the business landing page, etc, and further use the right hand sidebar of the the pages to deliver other more focussed and targeted campaign material direct to the customers who need it.

This way, we believe everybody will win – customers will see the campaigns which are relevant to them, and service areas will be sure their campaigns are going to the relevant audiences.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Images of Birmingham on the home page

simon gray - 2013-02-13, 17:43:08

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

One of the issues which has caused a fair amount of discussion amongst colleagues internally is the matter of images of Birmingham on the home page.

There’s a strong view that as well as being a gateway to the services the website and the council as a whole offers, the home page should be used to market Birmingham the city, particularly by means of having pictures of Birmingham on the home page.

We’re not automatically opposed to this idea on principle – but we are indeed unsure about it as a direction to go in, partly because we want to ensure the home page is as focussed and uncluttered as possible, and partly because we don’t think people come to the council website with a particular interest in looking at pictures of the city; residents will already know what the city looks like, and visitors and potential visitors will always find a richer source of imagery of the city from sites such as Flickr.

There’s also the more pragmatic question of what images to use to promote the city? Selfridges has been a favourite iconic image since it opened here in 2003, but 10 years on it’s perhaps time to think of other iconic images. The Council House is another oft-used image by ourselves – but fine building as it is, is the organisational centre of the civic administration the best image to use to promote the city as a whole? We like to promote our canals in Birmingham, but actually there aren’t many canal vantage points which are both highly photogenic and at the same time clearly uniquely Birmingham rather than canals anywhere.

We’re all getting quite excited about the opening of the new Library of Birmingham this coming September, so we’ve chosen to use a highly de-saturated image of the building’s cladding as a background image windowed across the home page’s six segmentation boxes.

Looking at other councils’ websites, I picked a random sample of six different home pages and was surprised to see actually none of them featured images of their localities:

Comments from original article

  1. Daz Wright says:

    February 19, 2013 at 10:58 am

    I’m not a big fan of putting images on the front page. I don’t think people will stumble across the site and decide to visit/invest in Birmingham based on images.

    There is a great advantage in ensuring that the entry page is devoted to function. This is a page that we will expect residents to visit many times if this is going to be their principle channel for engaging with the Council.

  2. Stuart Lester says:

    February 19, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    I guess from a residents perspective you want to get to the information you need fast, so images not needed. Having said that I wonder if people outside fo Birmingham would prefer a “prettier” introduction page.

    I would try to understand the distribution of current users of the website and apply a bit of guess work as to what they want from the site.

    Alternatively pick up their location and adapt the front page accordingly (if it is possible to pick up html5 geolocation form the final solution?).

    Images with news items can cover both cases, makng the iste look less bland and drawing the eye to the news item.

    • Simon Gray says:

      February 20, 2013 at 10:08 am

      A responsive solution – interesting! There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be technically possible in the final solution, although I wonder if people might get irritated by the browser asking them if they agree to share their location when they arrive on the page?

  3. Marc says:

    February 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Have you considered using a large background image? If done correctly is doesn’t interfere with the UI for residents but can ‘sell’ your city.

    See to http://www.devon.gov.uk/ or http://www.scambs.gov.uk/

    • Simon Gray says:

      February 20, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      They’re both good examples, yes, and represent quite nice, ‘clean’ designs also.

      I think if we were to go in this direction, an image of Edgbaston Reservoir might be a good choice.

  4. Colin Stenning says:

    February 20, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    A sense of place and locality are important. Websites are visited by people from all over the world who are curious to find out where somewhere looks like – even if there is no desire to visit. A Council website should focus on service delivery, but should it be devoid of images? I think a happy balance is more important…

  5. Victor says:

    May 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

    The choice of six screengrabs is very interesting as they all look pretty much the same.

    I’d love to know your thoughts on a site such as Manchester’s.

    I am not one for always comparing Birmingham to Manchester, but their site “gets it”. No clutter, simple, obvious, and a lot more likely to achieve channel shift than anything else Birmingham is trying to do.

    Has any consideration been given to buying something “off the shelf”, or at least cloning what they do? It is even cleaner and simpler than the Government’s decentish efforts to reform the web!

    I just fear this is another reinventing the wheel exercise, that will leave BCC with egg on its face, as the 2009 “revamp” did.

    Cut the jargon and nonsense pages, use simple clear logos, order them in priority based on proven demand, and we will have a site to be proud of.

  6. Simon Gray says:

    November 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Interesting comments about home page design generally from Jakob Nielsen – http://www.nngroup.com/articles/homepage-real-estate-allocation/

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

The High Street is dying. Did The Internet kill it? No, it took its own life

simon gray - 2013-01-11, 08:35:28
It was another sad day for our town centres as it was announced, after going into administration a few days earlier, all 187 Jessops photography shops would shut at the end of the day, with the loss of 1,370 jobs.

Back 15 years ago, when I used to be considerably more into stills photography than I am now, Jessops on New Street in Birmingham was my favourite shop; they had knowledgeable staff, catered well for both digital and chemical photography, but best of all, they had a massive front window stacked up with a wide choice of second hand cameras, lenses, and other equipment, at a good choice of price ranges.

Then the New Street branch closed, to be replaced around the corner by the Jessops ‘World Camera Centre’, which curiously with a doubling of floorplate space had a fraction of the stock – and big second-hand front window being replaced by a small second-hand glass case.

More recently over the last year or so, whenever I’ve gone into the Jessops World Camera Centre I’ve found the customer experience incredibly frustrating. The print-it-yourself machines not working, the lack of basic stock available, the immense difficulty of attracting the attention of a shop assistant, and when that attention is finally attracted, the shop assistant not having the faintest idea what I’m talking about (“what’s a flash bracket?”), or the most usual response “oh, we don’t have any in stock right now – we’ll have to order one in”.

And it’s not just Jessops where I’ve had that experience – that’s become my default experience from most shops which sell products I merely want rather than such as food and clothes actually need. Tech shops, camera shops, book shops, record shops (well, such as there are any record shops left), DIY shops, jewellery-making supplies shops, whatever – you name it.

When considering goods which people don’t need but want, the value of a shop over the internet is three-fold – the hope that the customer who needs advice can be advised by somebody more knowledgeable than themselves, the possibility that an impulse decision to want something can be satisfied immediately, rather than having to wait several days for it to be delivered, and the ability to handle the goods in advance of purchase – to check for oneself that the product on offer is indeed the product one wants.

But if the person in the shop knows less than you do, if the person in the shop says ‘sorry, we’ll have to order it in for you’, or if – as in the case of many bookshops these days – the product is sealed and shrinkwrapped so you can’t actually verify its suitability in advance, then what is the point in going to the shop to pay a third more than you could have paid shopping online in the first place?

It’s a curiosity that in the olden days when the owners of shops dictated what we could buy by their monopoly on the shopping experience, they still went to great lengths to ensure the shopping experience met our needs and encouraged us to buy from them, whilst nowadays the response of the High Street to the threat of the Internet is to just give up and blame the Internet for stealing its customers.

Our High Streets are indeed dying. Rather than blaming The Internet, it’s time our shop owners responded to the challenge it presents by shifting to business models which improve on the Internet’s offer, rather than just moaning about the fact of the Internet being better at selling things than they are.

#economy #technology

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Project product map

simon gray - 2012-12-20, 15:54:26

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

As part of the iterative and agile process we’ll be working under, I’ve put together the first draft of our project map, identifying the various ‘products’ which will need to be developed as we go along:

As the project progresses we’ll be colouring those red boxes yellow and green, and adding more boxes along the trees, and of course adding new boxes and branches as new products are identified.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Developing the sub-projects

simon gray - 2012-12-03, 18:05:21

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

In order to make this whole project manageable, we need to split it up into a number of (initially five) sub-projects, from which our agile / Scrum series of products will emerge.

The sub-projects can be broadly grouped into three categories – content strategy, infrastructure, and governance. So far we have these:

Information Architecture

This is how people will navigate through the site – not just by the menu structure, but also A-Z, related links, and search. It will be looking at how content fits into the six top levels, identifying where the possible points for confusion lay, and mitigating that possible confusion.


Relating to Information Architecture, we need to perform a content audit of the existing site and determine what pages we will need on the new site – the first pass being to establish what each page will cover, with subsequent passes being to actually write the new content based on matching and amending existing content to bring it in line with new content guidelines – which also need to be developed as part of this project stream.


Whilst we like the design we’ve created in broad terms and think it stands well against other council websites, we know there is still work to do on it – we don’t want it to look good within its own sphere, we want it to look good on the web as a whole. We know there are tweaks here and there to do with spacing which need making – which is a coding issue – but we also know the the colour scheme needs serious attention by those more qualified to design colour than we are! And of course as well as minor tweaks, we’re aware that there may need to be more fundamental changes made in the light of feedback we receive.

CMS Technology

Whilst this project is overwhelmingly a content project rather than a technology project, there will of course be technology aspects we will need to address, including possible changes we might need to make to our content management system – Fatwire – in order to realise the work on our site proper, including changes to the HTML templates and the addition of possible new functionality such as widgetised sidebars and RSS feeds.


As well as changing the content of our website, we also need to change how the content actually gets on our website! Currently we have a wider pool of approximately 300 web editors of differing skills and amount of content to manage, dispersed according to the council’s directorate structure. The governance project will look at how best to create and manage content in the future.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Project outline, scope, goals, and outcomes

simon gray - 2012-09-14, 15:43:58

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here. This is the first post, which outlined what the project was actually about:

The Alpha project, inspired by the same methodology the central Government Digital Service has used as it redevelops https://www.gov.uk/ and Shropshire council’s Project WIP (http://shropshire.gov.uk/projectwip/), was conceived in March / April 2012 as a separate website on which we can develop and trial innovative developments in how we deliver services on birmingham.gov.uk in the future. Permission to proceed with the project was granted in early May, with the purchase order for the web hosting necessary for the work being sent to Service Birmingham on 7 June, with Service Birmingham delivering the development environment hosting on 4 July. Much of the background and preparatory work has been carried out over the course of time since summer 2011, including at various GovCamps, and work-in-earnest started on 12 September 2012.

Alpha has been conceived and designed from the ground up to facilitate an agile, iterative development process, allowing full consultation to take place and feedback to be received from key stakeholders – including members of the public – to show full transparency in our thinking, and provide an evidence base for work which will in due course become the main site.

Alpha will be the place where new designs, navigation, and content is developed and tested with customers and other stakeholders before migration to the main site, in order to allow

  • The programme of website improvements to be made clearly visible to customers, council officers, and members rather than hidden away in the respective sections of the site,
  • The programme to be a rolling, gradual series of improvements showing a constant work package delivered within an agile framework, allowing for change and evolution as requirements change in a fast-moving technology landscape,
  • Ultimate transparency in consultation with customers, officers, and members, where in addition to proposed developments being shared publicly before being adopted, the rationale behind those developments will also be shared with stakeholders being encouraged to feed back on the proposals, and
  • The minimum level of disruption caused to the main existing site whilst the development takes place.

Segmentation Portal

The proposed starting point of the alpha project shall be a new home page, building on good practice already pioneered by Liverpool.gov.uk but leading to a radical new approach in local government website architecture.

Current thinking describes 80% of our customers being interested in only 20% of our content, leading to a pressure for as much as possible of the remaining 80% of content to be culled. This however is a flawed view of who are customers are and what is important to them, and also ignores the legal and moral requirements for much of the content which is deemed to be uninteresting to the majority of customers to still be available to them in order to preserve the essential democratic accountability of the council.

Taking a quantitative analysis of access statistics rather than a qualitative one ignores the possibility that the reason some pages are accessed rarely might be because they are so poorly presented in the menu structure of the site and are so poorly optimised for search that the customers who are interested in that content simply fail to find them. Other pieces of content – such as, for example http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/transum – which might be rarely accessed by customers might indeed not be intended to be anything other than rarely accessed, but still need to be present as archive documents for the stakeholders to access at any time rather than having to make phone or email contact with the council to retrieve them. Lastly, some pieces of content might only be accessed once a year, but if the person who is trying to access that content is the chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership responsible for the allocation of millions of pounds worth of investment in the city, their inability to find that content reflects badly on the council. Regardless of the reasons some rarely-accessed content might be rarely accessed, with website access statistics of the period 1 June – 1 July 2012 being 3,134,725 page views of 2,317,162 unique pages by 460,608 unique visitors visiting the site 731,470 times, it is clear that even a removal of 50% of the site’s content, let alone 80% would lead to the removal of a significantly measurable amount of content which if not there would lead to the reverse channel shift of customers needing to make a phone call, send an email, or visit a customer service centre in order to get hold of.

It is accepted that there is redundant, out-of-date, trivial, and vanity content which serves no obvious purpose – for example, it is doubtful that any driver habits will been changed as a result of a driver happening to visit one of the pages linked to from http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/road-safety/driving-safety ; on the other hand the single page http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/highways-works-programme which at first glance appears to be a set of dry policy documents upon further analysis becomes essential information which if intelligently re-purposed and placed more sensibly in the menu structure and turned into a series 12 well-designed web pages could become a genuinely useful resource for the citizens of Birmingham, improving the reputation of the site and council itself, and contribute to channel shift by reducing the need for residents to phone up to find out when their road is due to be resurfaced.

The segmentation portal solves the problem of rarely-accessed content and frequently-accessed content competing with each other for attention in the same information space, allowing rarely accessed content which is necessary to survive by separating that content out from one single, large site into separate sites determined by a series of defined customer profiles:

  • The ‘standard’ customer – the 80% of our customers who are accessing the 20% of the content,
  • Students, graduates, and young professionals,
  • Business leaders, executives, and inward investors,
  • Small – often family – business owners and operators,
  • Politically and civically active citizens,
  • ‘Hard-to-reach’ groups,
  • People requiring care in some form, and their carers,
  • Parents,
  • Visitors and potential migrants to the city,
  • Members and council officers seeking relevant information.

From this we can extrapolate six distinct segmented sites:

  • My local area – a site not only responding to the emerging localism agenda, but also providing other information about services directly in, around, and related to the area in which the enquirer lives,
  • Residents – where the bulk of the 20% content will be,
  • Business – for both the small family business owners and the leaders and executives,
  • About the city – transcending all the defined customer profiles containing information necessary to all, including transport information, history and demographics of the city, and information relevant to potential investors,
  • The council – for the citizen activists, members and council officers, and to a certain degree the inward investors,
  • What’s on and leisure – similarly to About the city, containing information which transcends the uniquely defined customer profiles.

At the heart of the six chosen segmented sites lies the principle that the customer must not be made to feel like they have been segmented according to a customer profile, rather that whatever informational or transactional need has brought them to birmingham.gov.uk site they should be able to immediately see in which of the six segments their need will be fulfilled.

The global navigation of the Local Government Navigation List will be dispensed with entirely, however a form of global navigation – successfully adopted by the bbc.co.uk website estate for a number of years – will be preserved in the shape of the links to the six segmented sites appearing in a horizontal bar at the top of each page, with traditional local navigation on the left hand side, curated service-related cross-sell links appearing where relevant at the bottom of each page (eg the page giving information about cycling in Birmingham under About the city containing a ‘see also’ link to the Cycling Strategy policy document in The Council, or information about premises licenses which have been applied for under Residents linking to information about how to apply for a premises license in Business), and targeted channel shift and marketing and communications links in a column on the right hand side.

Design principles

There are two major principles which need to underpin the design of a new site – (a) the need for absolute simplicity, whether the audience is a digital native or a nervous computer user, and (b) the need to deliver a modern, fresh look unencumbered by the complexity of the conflicting needs and demands of the various diverse stakeholders.

By starting off with a simple, bold, and accessible home page, which should scale gracefully to fit any screen regardless of it being desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone, the customer can instantly see that their needs will apply to one of the six chosen segments, and follow through with their task without being confused by the presence of information which is irrelevant to their needs. Aesthetically, the design will need to be simple, bold, elegant, and uncluttered; a combination of the modern with the timeless principles of Swiss design – big headings, finger-friendly for touchscreen devices, and bold iconography.

Planned approach

The timescale for the complete package of work, from first release of the starting point of the proposed alpha designs to the completion of the work with all the old content and designs having been replaced by the new content will be up to two years.

Clearly, for two years worth of work to be carried out entirely in the background with no public deliverables along the way – even with full public consultation on the work in progress – would be unacceptable. Therefore, a phased release approach will be necessary:

  1. Suggested main home page and segmentation home pages, with links from those home pages to existing pages delivered in alpha,
  2. Prioritisation of detailed content by service area to be determined, balancing the need to show visible improvements to what are objectively the most popular service areas with what are subjectively the worst areas of the current main site,
  3. Development of initial new top-level content in alpha,
  4. Creation of seven new sites (six segments plus extra Webteam site) in Fatwire as beta.birmingham.gov.uk
  5. Detailed content development to take place in alpha,
  6. Phased migration of content from alpha to beta,
  7. Final cutover from beta to www.birmingham.gov.uk

Although the above depicts a sequence of events, in actuality much of the work will be done using an iterative approach with some tasks been carried out simultaneously with others; a detailed timeline will evolve during the course of the project.

Transparency and consultation

Fundamental to the project is a desire for the whole process to be carried out in the open, allowing internal stakeholders and external customers access to the work in progress in order to comment and shape the developing work. As well as the alpha site being a publicly accessible site, there will also be the facility on the site itself for customers to offer feedback, both in free text format and through structured questionnaires. In addition to online consultation, offline consultation will also take place by way of focus groups, userlabs, and service location specific activity (such as eg consulting on library pages in an actual library). Further transparency of the process will be ensured by the process itself being blogged along the way – again, on the alpha site itself.

#localgovdigital #localgov

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

Gil Scott-Heron, 1949-2011, and the best concert I’ve ever been to

simon gray - 2011-05-28, 18:10:24

It’s not my custom to publicly mourn the death of famous people; generally, it’s a thing other people do which makes me feel a bit icky – I didn’t know the famous person, and the famous person didn’t know me, so whilst it’s always sad when anybody dies it seems pointless to outpour grief for somebody one didn’t know and who didn’t know you.

I’m not going to break that habit and publicly mourn the sad death of Gil Scott-Heron, but instead I’m going to talk about the best concert I’ve ever been to in my 41 years of life, and what perhaps will remain the best concert I’ll ever have been to in what remains of my (hopefully at least another 41 years!) of life.

It’s a story I’ve told people in person more times than I care to count; there’s some people who’ve heard it more times than they’d care to count. I tend to present a fairly robotic, sentiment-free face to the world, but telling this story is one of only two (and you can read the other one on birmingham-alive!, if you want) which genuinely brings an emotional tear to my eye, rather than just my allergies to the many airborne particulates where I live.

I can’t quite remember if it was late 1989 or early 1990 (it was definitely that academic year, because I was in my second year as an undergraduate at Birmingham Conservatoire) that I went to a concert at the Birmingham Hummingbird. Myself and my best friend at the time arrived at 8pm, the doors open time printed on the ticket, got a drink each, and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited. It’s fair to say after that we waited some more, followed by some more waiting.

Eventually at about midnight(!) a band came on – it was the a-capella group Black Voices, doing what I think might have been their first ‘proper’ concert in a big venue. They sang for about 40 minutes, and it’s fair to say that considering the ticket price, we felt we’d got our money’s worth just for that.

Then, at about 1:00am another band came on – Microgroove – who played for about an hour. Unquestioningly, it was easily worth the ticket price just for them – so much so, by about 2:00am when they finished we assumed the concert was over, since back the Gil Scott-Heron had a particular reputation for not turning up (or rather, being detained by airport security…). But the stage manager announced over the PA that we should rest assured, the concert we were going to see was going to happen.

Then about 2:30am, the man himself came on to the stage, sat in front of his Fender-Rhodes electric piano, leading us in what was his at-the-time concert opener, Five Miles Down. And then the rest of the band came on, treating us to at least two and a half hours of the most amazing concert ever, including a 30 minute version of the song Angel Dust. At the close of the concert, myself and my friend walked back home to our flat in Kings Heath.

I’ve not told you how much the ticket cost yet.



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Please note! This is work in progress - if you have come across it by accident you're free to stick around, but please be aware not everything will work as intended yet. I have a To do list.