User research towards a new Newsroom

A screenshot of the old Newsroom page.
How the old Newsroom looked

Hi, my name is Lorna. In June 2018, I was asked to lead on the redesign of the newsroom for Brighton & Hove City Council’s new website. The redesign would form part of the work the Communications team is doing to update our style for a more modern approach to news, such as writing for the web and social media.

The new website

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that our new website has been live for a while. We’re rolling it out slowly, as we redesign the content with each council team and move sections over from the old site.

As such, we already had an information architecture and pattern library for most of the website content. However, news content works differently to static or transaction-focused content as it entails different goals (for both residents and the council). News content needs to engage and entertain rather than just inform people, and can have a shorter shelf-life.  So, we needed to do some thorough user research to uncover the users’ needs and behaviours before attempting to redesign the newsroom.

Planning the research

We decided that our primary target users were local residents and the communications officers who write our news articles and post them online.

I put together a research plan that included:

Some images of heatmaps of the Newsroom.
One source of data I used was heatmaps that show where people click and scroll when reading stories
  • a pop-up survey of readers of council news stories
  • interviews with local residents
  • comparative analysis of other council websites and news sites
  • analysis of visitor traffic to the existing newsroom
  • analysis of social media engagement
  • analysis of heatmaps of visitor behaviour on the existing newsroom
  • interviews with news authors

Addressing limitations and avoiding bias in research

A photograph of the inside of the Bartholomew House Customer Service Centre.
I interviewed 31 residents in different council customer service centres and libraries

As with all research, it was important to be aware of the limitations and the potential biases that were difficult to avoid using these methods. For example, the interviews were held with people I approached in libraries and customer service centres, so there were some groups of people that I was more likely to speak to than others. Also, because the survey was aimed at people visiting the news pages, the responses were from people already engaged with the news pages.

However, the findings of the survey and interviews were interesting and seemed to be supported by the available online data.

Challenges

As with all projects, this one had its challenges! For example, we had initially included businesses as another target audience. However, I found it was very time consuming to engage with businesses and we want to make sure we have the time to properly work with them. So, we put a hold on that angle of the project for the time-being, but we will definitely talk to businesses again in the future.

While we did end up with a reasonable number of responses to the online survey on our news stories, this also took quite some time before there were sufficient responses for us to draw conclusions from it. We also had to be careful that we weren’t receiving multiple responses from the same user. Although the survey software seemed designed to prevent multiple responses, I certainly found some responses that seemed suspiciously similar!

One other challenge was that respondents were using the survey as a way to communicate with the council, instead of using our customer services contact forms. As we didn’t insist on respondents leaving an email address, we often had no way of getting back to them about an issue they had raised. We also had to be judicious about whether/how the data was used to inform the newsroom design.

Key findings and their implications for the design

Some of the findings that influenced the strategic decisions we made included:

An example of a sketched design and the resulting design pattern that is used on the new Newsroom.
I sketched different designs and worked with our designer to create solutions that fit within the new website design guidelines

Finding: People don’t tend to visit the council website to “browse” for general news. They are very often visiting to find information about a specific story they have heard about elsewhere.

Solution: Prioritise search functionality and categorise news stories to help visitors find the information they have come for.

Finding: Stories about major building developments and related consultations are far more popular than any other topic.

Solution: Clearly link to the Major Developments section of the website, and review how that content is presented when it is moved to the new website.

Finding: Word-of-mouth is a very important source of local news (including social media). However, people often repeated misinformation or had misinterpreted information.

Solution: Use callouts or pull quotes to flag the most important pieces of information so that people get the correct facts if they don’t read the whole story and remember the things that are most important.

Finding: Although many residents are on social media and they are not surprised that the council has social media accounts, it hadn’t occurred to them to follow the council. The same was true for our email newsletters. Some respondents said they would follow us or subscribe (if it looked interesting) but that they hadn’t thought about it.

Solution: Make links to subscribe to our email newsletter and follow our social media accounts more prominent.

Launching the Newsroom and plans for the future

A screenshot of how the Newsroom looked on the day we launched it
What the Newsroom looks like now

The new Newsroom was launched on 10 December 2018, as a “minimum viable product”. This means that some of the features described above are not included yet, but we are continuing development behind the scenes. I am also carrying out evaluation of this first version (including research with users of course!). We plan to launch the next version in the spring.

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.