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.

Change is good

As 2018 ends, we’re heading into the final quarter of the Digital First programme as it’s currently set up here, and inevitably there have been lots of changes since we started.

The council is working out how it wants this work to be delivered in the future and, while that’s not yet confirmed, what is definite is that there won’t be a Head of Customer and Digital in place as I am moving on to a new challenge leading the digital customer experience at EDF Energy.

Also leaving the team is Annie Heath who has been championing customer (user) needs in the council since time began. Annie is joining London Borough of Croydon as their Digital Design Manager – how lucky are Croydon to be welcoming her into the team?

I’ve been looking back on what we’ve achieved, handily summarised in this deck below.

We’ve really only been motoring for the past year as we had to set the team up from scratch. We’ve made some real changes in services where we have been able to redesign their customer journeys.  Predictably, we started trying to do too much and in the more recent months have become much more focused towards where we can deliver real value.

It’s been fun, it’s been exasperating, it’s been a challenge for everyone; the team will continue until the end of March and then we’ll see. By then we’ll have most of our online content on a new website and expect to have some other key apps working. Watch this space!

If you’re interested in finding out more about Annie and my work next year, you’ll find us at @Annie3H  and @alirigby

So all that remains now, is to thank the Digital First team for their hard work and dedication over the last few years. They have been outstanding and will no doubt continue to be great, right up to the end.

I wish you all Happy Christmas and the very best for the future.

Checking identities, saving time and money

The deadline to apply for a Year 7 place at secondary school passed last week. This year parents applied using a website developed by the Digital First team. This new website included several innovations designed to save time and public money.

One innovation we are particularly proud of is address validation. This is incredibly important. For example, some school places depend on where a child lives, so we needed to be able to confirm their address.

The old system involved an officer looking up the child’s parent in the council tax database. When dealing with thousands of applications, this can take a lot of time and public money.

The new website takes advantage of APIs between different systems to automate this. An API is a way for one computer system to talk to another and exchange data.

Firstly, we talk to the Brighton & Hove Local Land and Property Gazetteer (LLPG) database. This is a list of every address in the area controlled by a local authority. Every address in this database has a Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN). This allows us to confirm an address exists, and it’s exact location.

Secondly, we talk to the council tax database. If you pay council tax for a property in Brighton & Hove, then we know if you are resident there or not.

We know the applicant’s name and the UPRN of their address, so we check if they match our council tax records. Records are manually checked by a council officer if they don’t match.

This ensures the data we have is clean, and that school places are correctly allocated.

We estimate that this one feature alone saves a council officer around three months work.