Welcome to the world of the 404 error. The land of the broken link and unresponsive click. A place where time stands still and content is all but forgotten. Some refer to it as a dark place. Others deny its existence altogether. But you and I know the truth — it’s the experience of a local council website.
After a long term residency, Kingston Upon-Thames council has made a decision to no longer run web services this way. After a bit of soul searching, the problems are clear.
Over time a culture had formed that allowed baseless assumptions to go unchallenged. Decisions based on a whim and not a sniff of evidence were allowed to leave the office floor. The same culture encouraged a business-first mentality, prioritising how services worked internally, leaving the user absent from the process.
An ailing environment had driven the council's web service to meet the needs of the business, but not its residents.
Why is it important?
Unfortunately, users are the losers when councils operate like this.
Broken web services force users through traditional channels, such as email or telephone. This adds greater stress to already stretched resources and costs the council more to manage.
Not only that, the experience leaves a bitter taste. Users begin to doubt who the service works for. Over time this erodes trust in the organisation and results in disengaged citizens resentful of the council tax collection.
With over 2.5 million sessions per year, the Kingston website is an important front door to the council. For many users, the website is the council. So it’s vital then that web services are a positive experience. Trust in the organisation, and its services, depend on it.
What is the solution?
Re-shaping culture isn’t easy. Pulling the levers of change might alter a process here or a structure there, but shifting norms and behaviour takes time. Therefore, the challenge of delivering better web services isn’t just about the technical development of a website, after all, lines of code are easy to insert, but rather in changing the behaviour of those involved.
The solution at Kingston is a major transformation programme aimed at embedding an agile, user-centered design approach across its digital service. The project introduces a number of radical changes. Here are three which could have the greatest influence on improving web services.
Broadening digital skills
The first focus is on broadening current capabilities.
Previously the organisation had a business-first atmosphere. Digital roles focused internally, specialist skills lay dormant and teams worked in silos. By closely following the DDaT framework, the organisation has since carved out new roles that cover the wider breadth of skills needed to run good quality, modern digital services.
The new roles actively champion the user at every opportunity. Specialist data, design, and programming skills are now in place, and work is conducted cross-collaboratively in multi-disciplined teams. Whereas before you’d have found legions of business analysts, now you’ll find user researchers, interaction designers, and service designers buzzing around. All working with users to uncover problems and identify new solutions.
As a result, web services are now resourced with the skills needed to deliver improvement, not just maintenance. User researchers test with users, interaction designers improve front end usability, and service designers focus on the end-to-end journey.
Switching to an agile approach
The second focus is on how digital teams approach work.
Since forever, projects at Kingston have followed a traditional, waterfall-based approach. Resulting in unwieldy projects and some spectacular failures. The rigidity of the approach means it cannot keep up with the fast-moving, ever-changing demands of software-based delivery. Good services need to evolve quickly and shouldn’t be stifled, so a change in methodology is required.
To escape the sequential, linear trap of waterfall, the organisation is instead moving towards an agile, user-centred approach. Services are now centered around continuous iteration. Changes are made and then tested with users in fortnightly sprints. Working back and forth like this helps to iron out issues as they arise and keep improving the services over time.
Forms on the website were the first to benefit from the new approach. Researchers tested with users to understand the problems encountered when submitting forms online. The issues discovered were documented and played back to the development team who went away and made improvements. This pattern continued until researchers stopped observing major issues. Throughout testing the research team continually saw improvements in user satisfaction.
Data-based decision making
The third and final focus is around decision making.
Just like the foolish builders who built their house upon the sand, for too long decisions at Kingston have been based on shaky foundations. Loose footings caused by low data literacy and a lack of data infrastructure.
However, with the transformation comes a new emphasis on data. Specifically around its collection and use across the various web platforms and tools used to deliver web services.
Now, teams and individuals are increasingly challenged to make decisions based on evidence rather than assumptions. Meaning once overlooked web analytics software finds itself at the center of all web-based decision making. Its capabilities bolstered by additional analytics tools across the digital touchpoints, such as SEO and internal search.
As a result, web services are steadily climbing the data maturity ladder. Reaching a point where new techniques (like A/B testing) are actively embraced, whereas before they might have met resistance.
The issues described above are not unique to Kingston. The reality is they are experienced up and down every corridor across local government. The challenge at Kingston is finding a way to break the entrenched ways of working and the mindsets that have solidified over time.
A cultural revolution spurred by the transformation programme won’t happen overnight. But get it right and Kingston web services will operate radically differently. This time for the benefit of both the business and the user.
We all want to operate in the sunlight, but first, we need the world of bad web services to burn.
User Researcher at Kingston Upon-Thames Council
@slbluke on Twitter