Weeknotes: week 18

Blast from the past

Neil Lawrence
Feb 20 · 8 min read
You can’t get more retro than an 80s electropop cover of a 50s classic. I challenge you not to dance

Well after a week off involving eating too many broken biscuits (they sell them in really big boxes, don’t they?), very cold walks and finally buying myself a new bicycle it was back to work this week. This process normally sees me sitting, somewhat stunned, for too long asking myself what it is I actually do. Luckily (since no one else really knows what I do) I work it out and get on with things pretty quickly. And then start enjoying it again.

This week saw me being pulled back to my Oxford days a bit, but in a really positive way.

That chatbot project again

Last week I’d been contacted out of the blue by Torchbox about getting involved in a webinar on the MHCLG chatbot research project we did in 2019 so we could share our findings with other local authorities. This was something we never got to properly do back in the day as contract expiry and half term holidays got in the way.

By sheer coincidence, Nick Hill also got in touch about the same project as he was looking to include a slot in his Government 4.0 Week on automation technologies. So clearly, we needed to get these kids together!

It was really great meeting up again with Luiza Frederico and re-living the project, working up a conversational-style presentation for us to use. What really came across strongly for me again was the vital need to clearly identify the problem trying to be solved, rather than jump straight to using the technology.

It was interesting that many of the comments and questions felt like there was still an attitude of finding a use for the technology, while our research had showed that this could be an expensive mistake if applied to the wrong circumstances. One attendee mentioned they were spending about £9,000 for just 2,000 interactions per year on one product, which sort of proved the point.

Overall it was nice to have done the project justice in finally giving it a good airing and pointing more people toward using its tools and findings, which was always a key driver for me. I’m a bit disappointed that this is one area where there is still no collaboration across localgov, with authorities running off to do their own thing and not share costs or research, which is what the project set out to challenge.

Final ripples

There were a few things I had to leave in progress when I switched jobs, and this week I heard back on two of them.

The first was a long-standing effort to try and get some better tech for a particular application which was very user-facing. Decisions to date on what to use had largely been made on price and back-end functionality. I got involved in helping form the tender spec, and had been really frustrated by our IT team adding their own long list of requirements which then dominated the list to the point that user needs were invisible. It took the intervention of a (thankfully) progressive procurement manager who asked “why isn’t this using the Digital Marketplace?’ Music to my ears…

After I had left COVID put the whole procurement on hold, but this week I heard back that the software I’d always dreamed of being used was actually chosen. It’s a real shame I won’t get to work with the supplier, who I really admire, but it was great to feel I had some influence there.

Alt text: Josh Lynman declaring “victory is mine”

The second example was a more personal one. Getting people to shift their thinking to embrace more digital approaches can sometimes be a real challenge, and in my final months I’d been asked for some help on a policy-related subject. Nominally it had been about satisfying a Member decision to create an ‘interactive website’ (what does that even mean?) to help promote a policy initiative, but I started a series of conversations with the project lead about researching what users of such a site would actually need. How could the council be sure the website it created would actually achieved what was wanted? Those conversations sparked a veracious appetite for user research in her, and a true digital convert was born!

To cut a long story short, we got a supplier conversation going, determined the parameters for a user research project and then she secured funding for it. I’d been kept in touch on her progress in appointing a terrific agency for the research, the kick-off of the project, the user interviews, and her disappointment at the lack of wider engagement with the first Show and Tell.

This week she proudly told me that not only had another team asked for user research training from the agency, but that one of my old Digital team colleagues had led his first user research interview. Talk about a win!

She also said this to me, which really resonated:

Even though it feels like I’m banging my head against a brick wall and my line manager is probably still wondering what the hell I’m doing and why won’t I “just get on with it and deliver the grant”… I’m sensing some small steps in a direction which feels like progress?!

I’m so proud of what’s she’s been able to achieve, against the odds, and make more of an impact than I feel I was ever able to back there in terms of user research . I wonder how many other people starting out in digital feel the same way as she does, and how we can catch these rising stars to get them into roles where they can shine even brighter.

Alt text: Toby Ziegler puts his hand on his heart to show gratitude

It’s Accessibility Week (again)

It wasn’t the greatest start to the week getting a notice from GDS about accessibility issues they’ve found with our website. Although we knew these letters were landing in other councils, and I’d recently warned our management team, it was still less than enjoyable actually getting the letter particularly after the hard work of colleagues in working on accessibility improvements.

Alt text: Donna Moss saying “it’s going to be an unbearable day”

Actually it turned out that the few issues they found are going to be easily and quickly fixed by our developers, who have started work straight away. Unfortunately we are a little hampered in trying to understand the actual problems to fix by the quality of the information provided to us. The first issue identified was incorrect (verified by another council checking it), and some others were open to interpretation. I’m hoping to get further support in clarifying these next week, despite there being just 12-week window to resolve the issues.

This week I also sat in on a webinar run by our accessibility auditors around their findings on one of our other websites. This accompanied their written report which is designed around the impact of issues for people with disabilities together with screengrabs to clearly illustrate them. It really helps to engage service teams when accessibility audit information is written like this, and to direct developers on how to fix them. Of course, it’s unfair to compare a national audit programme of all public sector websites and its feedback with specialist, procured services like this.

Finally, we’re get involved in Services Week in March and I’ve agreed to do a slot on accessibility. So Friday was spent pouring over the topic to try and find an angle that would connect with service teams beyond just reiterating what the regulations says. In the end I felt it made more sense to acknowledge that features and approaches colleagues want to use do have their merits, but also try and show how these cause issues for people with disabilities, and give practical tips of what they can do or alternatives they can use. So far my only advice for carousels is ‘they don’t work’ so I may have to work on that one a bit more.

Telling stories

We’re getting to the point in our Customer Platform project where we’re actively planning our first sprint. My Content Design Ninjas just threw themselves into this task, plastering Miro with a heap of user stories. My favourite was as a content designer wanting to be proud of our new website — my heart soared. I love the concept of having pride in a product you help shape that delivers a great service to users. More of those stories please!

I also had to put together a Show and Share for our project Steering Group to help bring everyone up to speed on what stage we’d reached in prototyping the migration tools for the CMS switch. Placecube ran a demo on Monday to show me them in action for one specific content type, and I was really reassured to see how well they worked in pulling content from our current CMS, transforming the data and pushing it into our UAT site. This means we can leave all content on our current site for business continuity while we run the migration.

The process is also letting us use delta migration (essentially re-running it as often as we like, with only the changes being updated) which means we can kiss goodbye to a long content freeze for our service teams. Still not sure if I’m getting the concept across on what this means, but here’s the slide I ran with:

Slide showing migration in stages with frequent subsequent delta migrations
Slide showing migration in stages with frequent subsequent delta migrations

I also started putting flesh on the bones of the #ContentDesignRevolution we want to start in Dorset as part of the project. The first reactions from the Steering Group were pretty good so next steps are getting ready to talk to our management team about it as part of the wider project. Join the revolution, comrades!

And finally…

Some other things that happened this week:

  • the final final bit of furniture for the house arrived (yes, I know I said that in a previous weeknote) in the form of a chair that took four months since we ordered it. Now we’re not sure we like it
  • kicking myself for missing Kit Collingwood at ImproveCamp on Thursday, but pleased I’ll be able to catch up with the video and also with the Dave Briggs interview with her earlier in the week. You just can’t get enough Kit really
  • being lifted on Tuesday by Lisa Trickey and the service team meeting she ran. Got a great tip on forming habits first before trying to improve them, and inspired to look at how I can live behaviours that respect how other people are driven
  • restarting my intermittent fasting and exercise routine, but being pleasantly surprised by not having gained any weight from my week-off binging
  • initiating a mega discussion thread on the use of FAQs on LocalGov Digital Slack based on some Yammer feedback on Claire’s brilliant blogpost. Quite a range of informed views going on that were a delight to read

Digital Dorset

On a Digital journey to become a Digital Council in a Digital Place

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