A new way to apply for school

Four weeks ago in mid-September, we released the new school application form for live applications. Its release was a milestone for Digital First. It’s the first product we’ve made that has completely replaced another.

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Our multi skilled team

We built it in response to feedback we were getting from customers. They were telling us that the existing application portal was hard to use. One bugbear was that you had to supply your council tax account number. The schools admissions team needed it to confirm that you live at your address. Few people know this off the top of their head, so it was definitely an inconvenience.

After working out the user needs, we sat down and made a rough prototype in an afternoon. At first, we felt it would be easy to build. But the more we developed it, the more it became clear that it was far more complicated.

To make matters worse, extra requirements emerged that were essential. This forced us to rebuild everything at a very late stage. The whole team worked flat out to hit the deadline. It went to the wire, but we pulled it off. It was a true collaborative effort to get it live.

To date, the new form has been a real success. The council receives around 8000 school applications a year. So far, over 1100 customers have made an application using the form, with no major issues reported.

We’ve received lots of positive feedback and this is unusual. Usually, the council only hears from customers when there are problems. When you don’t hear anything, it’s usually a sign that everything is working well; no news is good news. So, for people to go out of their way to provide positive feedback shows we must be doing something right.

One of the questions in the feedback form is ‘How could we improve the new website for you?’. A customer who fed back said ‘It’s already perfect’ and that a friend had recommended the form to them. When it comes to feedback, it doesn’t get any better than this.  The improved form gives a significantly improved customer experience, which is exactly what we are trying to do.

There’s one thing that tops it though. Customers don’t need to tell us their council tax account number anymore. This is all done in the form which cross-checks automatically. Just this feature alone saves the service around three months of one officer’s time.  It’s a win for our users and our service.

 

Hack to the future – 2030 Vision

Who can spare a couple of hours out the office helping 10 year olds think about their future city?  Yes please said lots of us. Giving back to the community is a core part of what working for Brighton & Hove City Council is about.

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Lovely place for a City Hack

The Digital First team helped out yesterday (Friday 25 May) at the 2030 Vision City Hack organised by Brighton’s MakerClub. Brighton & Hove 2030 Vision is a series of events coordinated by the council and partners looking at how we can prepare for the future.

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Smiley happy Digital First team

Eight primary schools came along to the Amex Stadium at Falmer, where Albion in the Community kindly hosted the session. As it’s out of season, we had the extra special treat of seeing the pitch being relaid, that or beach volleyball is coming to the Amex.

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There were 10 groups of around 8 children from year 5, all offering up their own ideas about how to improve the city in the future. We even had some dressed as superheroes including a Wolverine and most impressive Emmeline Pankhurst.

Mia from MakerClub had created a clever game where the kids earned tokens to spend on tech ideas that would help the city, through ideas like bike sharing schemes, seabins, 3D printed buildings, big belly bins and more.

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Mia and Mo from MakerClub

Over the next 2 hours, the groups explored the pros and cons of each solution, working out whether the benefits outweigh the negative impacts. And then the groups planned where each of their solutions would be placed in Brighton & Hove.

As a finale, each group presented their ideas. Every group demonstrated a real understanding of the issues and a great deal of empathy in how these solutions might affect residents of the city.

All the ideas will be collated and fed back to Brighton & Hove Connected to contribute to the Brighton & Hove 2030 Vision. At the end, everyone had the opportunity to say what they thought about the session, so that future sessions can keep getting better.

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Posting feedback on the wall

It was great to hear all the bright ideas from a children who will be 22 in 2030? Twelve years ago, Facebook was just being opened up to the world and the iPhone hadn’t yet arrived. 12 years is a long time in tech.

A great way to build software

Many posts on this blog are about products Digital First creates from scratch. We find out new user needs, and often conclude that it’s easier, cheaper and better to build for ourselves.

I wanted to write about an example where we haven’t done that, and why it’s still a great fit for us.

Brighton & Hove City Council manages about 1800 volunteers across different services. They help with digital literacy, conserve the city’s precious parks and a lot more besides.

The way the council manages volunteers varies from service to service. We wanted to make it easier to become a volunteer, and improve day to day support. Plus, with new data protection regulations coming into force in May this year, it was time for a spring clean.

My colleagues Sam, Rich and Annie looked at many options. They ultimately settled on an off the shelf service called Volunteer Plus. It ticked most of the boxes from a features point of view, and the price was competitive. The biggest single factor in our decision was their commitment to work in an agile way.

We bang on about agile a lot here. It’s really important. When we find a genuine user need, we should respond to it quickly. The ideal is shipping something that day, or that week. Let’s make something right now that responds to the need we’ve seen, and ask real users to try it. Rather than theorising about the best solution, we’ll know for sure what works and doesn’t.

The creator of Volunteer Plus, Luke Pipe and his company Pipe Media, love this approach. We share a Trello board where I describe and prioritise needs I hear about. Luke and I discuss ideas, and sometimes Skype to sketch and work out the best solution.

We’ve done three releases of Volunteer Plus this way, covering onboarding of volunteers, a new simplified sign up form and bulk actions for admins (such as send an email to a group, or mark hours worked, or expenses claimed).

Managing a volunteer using our new Volunteer Plus software

We’ve started thinking about major future releases, including rostering of volunteers, and an app they can carry. Like every other part of this project, we’ll start simple and build from there.

I think this is the right way to build complex software that truly responds to users. Do you have a project that works this way? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.