Web Technologies Scotland

On the 12th of March, I was up at the Web Technologies Scotland gig in Edinburgh, where I was representing the PSWMG.

As chair of the event, I didn’t really have a lot to say (”come and join the PSWMG, go on, it’s great” was, I think, about the size of it) so most of my time there was spent listening to the real speakers, and trying to keep us running approximately to the published schedule. During this time I took copious amounts of notes, and I thought it would be interesting to reproduce them here — without cross-referencing with the slide material available, just to see whether I accurately picked up the gist of what people were trying to say.

In other words, if you want to know what was actually said, this may not be the best place. This is my impression of what was said…

I’ll try and keep editorialising to a minimum!

Making The Best Use Of Public Sector Cyberspace

This was delivered by Ewan McIntosh of Learning and Technologies Scotland. This, for me, was probably the single most inspirational speaker of the talks: a clarion call demanding that us folks in the public sector need to do more with our web presence.

It also introduced a theme which was to be one of the two main topics of the day: raised expectations.

Ewan told us that there is a large gap between the way the public sector approaches the web and the way web users expect to. Web users now expect to be able to work collaboratively, whereas there is a perception at least that the public sector may see Web 2.0 as “just silly videos”.

He then treated us — assuming that’s the correct term — to a segment from a Take That video, where the promotional video itself is showing us people recording the performance on their mobiles. That is, a video of people who are themselves recording a concert. The idea is that the recording industry, who once would have tried to clamp down on this, now see this as something which “creates a buzz” about the video/ concert.

Again, the idea is stressed that people are no longer satisfied simply to watch, view, or read. They expect to be able to participate (even if they then choose not to!).

He reminded us that the web is very different to traditional media: data on the web is

  • persistent
  • searchable
  • easily replicable
  • …and is distributed to invisible audiences

He then closed with the notion of “Identity 2.0″ (something I’d been ruminating on myself earlier). His point was that identity will become all about the granularity of information. What, precisely, do we choose to share?

He also gave us contrasting examples of forays into blogging: the CEO of Marriott hotels, Bill Marriott, produces the well-liked blog Marriott on the Move because he actually appears to listen and respond to commenters; whereas in contrast the Scottish First Minister’s A National Conversation blog appears to allow comments, but not to respond to them, leading to the interest in the blog dipping off quite rapidly [and at the time of editing, as the blog simply shows an XML parsing error, likely to see interest dipping off even more rapidly].

Guidance And Guidelines for Improved Web Services

Next up we had Chris Rourke, representing the Scottish Usability Professionals Association, who gave us — perhaps not surprisingly — quite a lot of information about usability.

He described usability as asking the questions:

  • can users reach their goals?
  • how fast can they do it? how many steps does it take? how many errors were encountered?
  • was it a good experience?

He covered the use of ISO 13407, which is basically a quality framework for “Human centred design processes for interactive systems” which concentrates on the design processes rather than the end result.

He mentioned that a good public sector website should have input from stakeholders; should know how to capture the users’ needs and to incorporate these into web design.

He emphasised that the importance of building in the appropriate usability/accessibility testing standards from the outset cannot be overstated, pointing out that the cost of a complete website overhaul is 30 times more expensive than building in testing at the outset; and also suggesting that if you understand your users properly in the first place, there are a lot of usability activities that can be usefully carried out in the design phase.

Creating A “Better Connected” Website

[I personally, and I representing PSWMG have had some issues with the way the Better Connected 2008 report has handled some things, notably accessibility. I've covered this -- and will continue to -- elsewhere, so here I'm just going to give my impressions of what was said, and I'll deliberately try to keep my opinions out of it!]

Martin Greenwood was up next, representing SOCITM Insight to talk about the Better Connected 2008 report.

His first point was that things have really improved during the 10 years that SOCITM have been producing the Better Connected report, and that the whole point of the survey is to assess whether content is:

  • useful
  • usable
  • …and used

The usable aspect of this asks questions like whether or not it has useful information, how easy it is to find and use, the importance of the A to Z, what the search function is like, whether it uses localisation (e.g. postcode) information, and also covers general navigation, accessibility, readability and resilience.

How well used is it considers some very different aspects: do people have easy free access to the net? Are visitor numbers increasing [well yes, but by how much in comparison to increased net usage] and what do visitors like about the site?

Better Connected 2008 has also been looking specifically at some areas like housing information, newsworthy events and how they are handled (such as St. Andrews Day in Scotland, and the Atherstone fire disaster), looking specifically at google landing pages and are producing a special accessibility-related supplement to follow.

Martin then listed some of the third party tests used in the production of Better Connected 2008 — from the Usability Exchange, through the RNIB, Hitwise, Nielsen and The Writer — and emphasised that the costs of web transactions (for fully integrated web systems) are 17p per transaction as opposed to £7.81 for face to face transactions or £4.00 for telephone ones.

His key recommendations were therefore to:

  • reduce telephone transactions by 50%
  • make web the primary portal for simple requests

He also suggested that a “Director of Customer Service” should be in overall control of all channels of service delivery.

He considered that websites should no longer be seen as something for the hobbyist but should be seen as a core service delivery channel and should be integrated into the emergency planning process, so that it can be updated out of hours where necessary.

From an accessibility point of view, he indicated that most sites are failing because of one of five common errors.

[It's worth remembering perhaps that despite my disagreement with certain features of Better Connected 2008, I think that there are certain things it does well. I just wish they could get the accessibility -- and in particular the way it is reported -- up to a decent standard]

Integrating Third Party Applications

Next up, we had John Fox, the website manager for the Dorset For You Partnership, to tell us about integrating third party applications. I had to admit, the content wasn’t what I would have expected from the title — I would have assumed that we were talking about file and/or data integration — and the content was about integrating the look and feel of third party applications into a website so that they match your existing corporate branding.

Nevertheless, this was a very useful talk: I think a lot of public sector organisations will have encountered the same sort of challenges that John has, and even if they have already been solving them in the same sort of way (and I expect at least some won’t have), even then it’s still useful to have the ideas and concepts talked over.

John stressed that it’s sometimes a lot of work to make a positive user experience, saying that a lot of problems are caused by someone acquiring a third party application, and then coming to the web team two days before it is due to go live, and expecting all of the branding/presentation issues to be sorted in about fifteen minutes.

He discussed the delicate balancing act between getting stuff to look exactly like the corporate website — and then having to jump through the same multiple hoops with the third party suppliers whenever you decide to change your corporate branding — and making something look “a bit like the corporate website” but with less hoops so that it’s more easy to keep it looking like the corporate website even when the corporate branding is changed at a later date.

There’s a sliding scale to be considered:

  1. completely unbranded application with default 3rd party presentation
  2. application ’slightly branded’ e.g. has corporate logo
  3. application ‘well branded’ e.g. corporate header, footer, comparable navigation
  4. application fully integrated e.g. you wouldn’t actually notice it’s a different application

John quite bravely showed us things which hadn’t worked so well as those which had, comparing the different payment portals available on the Dorset For You site, and showing that while some of them seem to seamlessly flow within the Dorset For You site, others… don’t.

Perhaps most importantly though, John shared with us a link to the useful resouce Salford’s application style guide for web applications which…

…are MANDATORY for Salford City Council divisions, directorates, business units (and collaborative projects where the city council is the majority funder or partner), and recommended for Salford school websites.Salford’s Web Standards

Integrating Geographic Information Into Your Site

…was pitched in the ‘graveyard shift’ immediately after lunch, but the speaker’s enthusiasm for his subject was such that it was impossible not to be interested in what he had to say. This was Alan McKirdy from Scottish Natural Heritage…

He pointed out that Scottish Natural Heritage are, unusually, specifically charged with being responsible for enjoyment (of said natural heritage).

The difficulty with information management was, he felt, that a few years ago the data was all there somewhere but it was scattered around and needed to be organised and structured to the extent that it actually became a corporate asset — which, I feel was what he was saying Scottish Natural Heritage’s data had now become.

He showed how spatially referenced data can (and indeed should) be presented on a comprehensible map. He said that they had used Google Earth in some cases ‘because it was free and because it was there’, to mark things like the sightings of the red squirrel.

He also introduced the WIMBY (What’s In My Backyard) which, for me was one of the greatest disappointments of the day. Not because there were problems with this feature — far from it — I was disappointed because Scottish Natural Heritage’s remit is, not surprisingly, Scotland and therefore this WIMBY feature wasn’t being extended as far South as Newcastle and Gateshead. I would have signed up to the SNP then and there if only they’d promised me Scotland would annexe Tyneside and extend this feature down to my region…

[The SNH site isn't perfect mind you -- I got bizarre menus floating across the page when I viewed it with javascript switched off]

Basically, the features allow you to see on a map, different features such as the location particular starfish species have been seen (of most relevance to coastal sites, obviously!), and links to photos of them as well as pinpoints on the map showing you where each individual photo was taken.

It’s the sort of site that would be fun to use, that would be great for schools or parents wanting to plan at least semi-educational days out, and makes me think that SNH are going the right way about ensuring that people will get a chance to enjoy their natural heritage.

Alan also advised that his motto for this was one, which while it might mean that things don’t always work properly first time, is all about making sure that people are inspired, rather than intimidated by challenges.

JFDI. Just Fucking Do It.

And then, rather bizarrely, on my notes I’ve scrawled DRINKING TIME MACHINE??? which I can only presume was in reference to something Alan said, but precisely what that was, I’ve got no idea. But it might be nice to find out…

Managing Content In A 2.0 World

Next up was Norman MacAskill and Norette Ferns, of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, to give us their thoughts on what the rules for content creation are, and how user-led content should be managed.

One of the ‘golden rules’ I think should apply to every site, not just “2.0″ sites, and not just public sector sites. Do not allow the website to become out of date. They also gave a slightly different spin on a more famous saying, telling us that:

If you build it, they will come … but only if content management is correct

They discussed ideas such as different users having different ‘confidence’ levels: in other words once a user has been around for a while and proven themselves to be helpful and not offensive, you give them increased permissions to carry out other functions.

There was also an interesting point raised regarding the moderation of content and comments. It was suggested that pre-moderation should not take place because this places you in a slightly more tricky legal position: if you have moderated everything that gets on your site, then you are saying you have specifically approved a comment, and if that turns out to be a comment that someone takes objection to…

…whereas if you moderate retrospectively, you have the opportunity to remove offensive comments either when you spot them or when they are drawn to your attention. [Obviously I'm not a legal expert here, so I'd advise people to consult their own legal departments, rather than just believing the second hand information I'm regurgitating here but I thought it was an interesting point!]

They discussed ways in which to encourage people to become involved: contributions, photo competitions, voting in polls, and the ability to add comments to articles, and then asked us to consider their key tips for web content:

  • Keep it short
  • If in doubt, delete
  • Highlight key words
  • Use meaningful subheadings
  • Use bullets and lists
  • Keep content up to date
  • Don’t use jargon
  • [I've told you a million times...] Don’t exaggerate
  • Proofread
  • Have a ‘house style’

…all stuff which makes your content easier to scan, or increases your credibility.

Norman & Norette still found that they encountered the 90:9:1 rule (90% of your users are passive, and just read; 9% of your users will contribute now and again, 1% of your users will provide most of your overall contributions) and tried to turn this into a positive: encouraging the already-active 1% to act as ‘Champions’ in particular areas, and trying to encourage extra contributions from the remaining 99% by the methods described earlier… as well as asking questions at the end of articles like “what do you think?” which they found encouraged contributions.

[what about you, dear reader, do you think that would work?]

Prioneering Web 2.0 Communities For Government

Unfortunately by this time, I was beginning to run out of index cards to write comments on, so I had to dramatically curtail my note-taking for the final two speakers, for which I’ll apologise now!

Firstly, we had Barry Kruger of the Quality Improvement Agency Excellence Gateway [a bit of a mouthful!] who explained that their main business objectives were to support the public sector workforce on the path to improvement and to support the government efficiency drive, based on four key principles:

  • partnership
  • enterprising leadership
  • self-improvement
  • excellence

Then he showed me one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen…

…I think to discourage us from using too much jargon, but as I was busy rolling around on the floor at that point, I’m not too sure…

He talked about ideas such as metadata standardisation, so that if we’re using the same tag taxonomy we can gain a lot of benefits from this sort of semantic approach, helping cross-referencing and effective retrieval of appropriate content objects as well as … (*chortle*prefamulated amulite *chortle*) … you see, it’s no good, I’ve lost it.

Anyway, this basically allows for flexibility in web provision. The idea is that we have standards that we can create, use, adapt and then re-use in order to do things more efficiently — to achieve more for less, using things like jobs, news and events feeds.

Developing New Methods of Delivering Information To A New Audience

I had just about recovered from the Turbo Encabulator by the time Willie Paul from the Scottish Government started to speak, so while my notes are brief, in this case they will hopefully be at least coherent.

Firstly, Willie asked us to consider different concepts of ‘newness’:

  1. stuff that … never existed before
  2. stuff that … was just discovered
  3. stuff that … is not yet familiar
  4. stuff that … takes the place of the previous stuff

For example, he referred to Edinburgh’s ‘New Town’ which was built between 1765 and 1850 [ha! call that old 'New'? What about Newcastle, then? The 'new' castle the city is named after was built in around 1080 AD!]. He also asked at what point in time would we stop referring to the web as “new” media and start seeing it as a traditional media source… suggesting that William Caxton has been replaced by Tim Berners-Lee.

He pointed out exactly how “new” a lot of things are that we take for granted now: Google was founded in 1997, and ten years before that, the World Wide Web didn’t even exist.

He described some of the ways in which the Scottish Government are trying to reach new audiences: from podcasts of ‘first ministers questions’, which apparently reach 300-600 people per week, to the Scottish Executive’s ScotExec You Tube channel, where he pointed out that 245 people have watched a survey about Scottish wildcats [although I have noticed that only 13 people have watched it in the week since, which does make you wonder how cost-effective it is as a delivery mechanism but on the other hand that doesn't detract from the point that many of the people they are reaching through these channels they would not otherwise have reached].

He also pointed out that the National Conversation website (as mentioned by Ewan McIntosh in the first segment) has had over 300,000 page views [although, like I say, it was just giving me XML parse errors when I tried to view it], and that this was a very brave and different departure from the traditional ‘politicos’ methods: the tone and style of the site itself can’t sound too self-congratulatory or boastful, although this does not necessarily apply to direct quotations from ministers and the like, where you obviously have to report what has been said whether or not it fits with the ‘house style’.

That’s All Folks

Then I briefly told everyone again why the PSWMG was brilliant and they all should join, commented on the two unifying themes: that new technologies are constantly arriving and evolving to present new challenges, and that the bar of user expectations is constantly being changed to reflect this, and that we all have to keep running to keep up. Or something like that.

I was still busy trying to remember the name of the Turbo Encabulator because I knew I’d want to reference that…

Well, what do you think, then?

3 Responses to “Web Technologies Scotland”

  1. Cole Henley responds:

    As a webbie working for a government agency in Scotland (Edinburgh) really peeved missed the chance to attend this one (but with this exhaustive summary almost didn’t need to).
    Sounds like things that we are all wrestling with and good to know other public bodies are biting the bullet, particularly when it comes to matching user expectation (largely defined by the private sector), managing user-generated content (or helping it manage itself) and integrating with third-party applications (particularly web apps).

    I think one thing that really resonated from your summary with recent discussions that have been taking place across the heritage sector (our own area) is the genuine need for user testing and it is good to see the cost-benefit outlined here in Chris’s talk. Sadly it is something that is just underfunded at present (the cost of developing a website is largely perceived as the cost of building it, particularly with in-house development) and although there is a real need for usability/user testing at early stages of project development in the public sector (from my own experiences) this is just not happening as much as it should be at the moment.

    Thanks for the summary - will defo have to try and make the next one!

  2. Seb responds:

    Wow - a packed day.

    Really interesting point about pre-moderation, which I shall pass on to the guideline guys.

  3. paul canning responds:

    to answer your question about the 1% of users actually contributing - this is wikipedia’s experience and andrew keen loves it :} my issue is always with who these 1% are - my issue with civil serf. so it would ‘work’ - it already is - but you have to ask who it’s working for. this is always my problem with a lot of online feedback developments. it just brings up the ‘mom’ question - where’s my mom in all this. good to hear a lot of commercial web experience overflow - ‘user experience’. with the usability/accessibility stuff I love the idea of usability camps, like one I blogged about [http://paulcanning.blogspot.com/2007/06/toronto-transit-camp.html]. people forget the human element with usability, the transformation inherent in simple engagement. this is just as true with accessibility.

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