My next design challenge (and I’m hiring a team!)

When I was at GDS, I found it hugely interesting to design for GOV.UK in a way that works for people who aren’t particularly confident with technology – designing for everyone. It’s something I missed at Twitter, where my team was creating advanced interfaces in products for pro users – journalists and social media managers – pretty close to designing for myself.

I’m always fascinated to see how people with a different relationship with technology interpret an interface that you and I consider straightforward. From watching my mum struggle with Facebook on her iPad, to usability testing online transactions with tech savvy grandparents at the Cabinet Office, this is something I love.

So when I was recently approached by Saga (with a core audience of over 50s for their holidays & cruises, magazine and financial services products) to build a central digital design team and lead a large scale redesign of their complete digital estate (websites, apps, the digital experience on a new cruise liner! 🛳 ) with a renewed focus on the customer, it piqued my interest.

I haven’t previously worked in a business which deals in financial services and, while it didn’t initially appeal to me, the ex-Adaptive Path design team who joined Capital One has convinced me that it’s an area ripe for opportunity. And I’ve dealt with government bureaucracy, so how hard can it be?

Looking at the Saga website and apps, I could see they suffer from many similar issues to pre-GDS government:

  • the siloed nature of the business is exposed to the user, right down to inefficient and inconsistent sections of the website for each department (see the holidays, money, and magazine pages)
  • forms are often designed to benefit the business, not the user.
  • there’s inconsistent attention paid to the needs of their specific customer demographic (right down to the design of the logo – if I find the colour split halfway through the word ‘Saga’ difficult to read, how might it be for a customer who’s eyesight is deteriorating?)

There are symptoms typical of complex businesses without the speed and flexibility to adapt, and which can be addressed by a new central digital team with clear design principles, a company-wide style guide, strong digital governance processes, a complete redesign based on user needs, and a switch from waterfall to Agile delivery.

Big challenges, but huge potential. Over half the population of Europe will be over the age of 50 by 2020. It’s an audience with a disproportionate share of disposable income, and yet there are no obvious companies leading the way in digital design in this space – they're all too busy focusing on millennials.

I’ve been working with Saga to draft a bold digital strategy for 2017 and beyond, and am heartened to see that their new top team are ready for change.

So I’m now their “Group Head of Digital Customer Experience and Design” (do I win the prize for longest job title?)

We’re already partnering with Nomensa on accessibility, and have recently run in-house training days for the divisional digital teams with Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane on responsive design and Sarah Richards on content design.

There are plans afoot for the business which I can’t detail here, but suffice to say I’m excited, both for myself and the team – and also for Saga customers!

Join the team

We’re a rapidly growing central digital team of a dozen people in a company of 5,000+, leading the charge on the digital revolution.

We’re based an hour from London on the high speed rail link to the south coast (by the Channel Tunnel entrance in Folkestone).

On my specific team I’m looking for contractors or full-timers with these skills, and with the confidence and ability to lead the company to a bright new digital future:

  • UX design (hired)
  • Design research (hired)
  • Visual design (hired)
  • Content strategy (hired)
  • Email design
  • Front-end developer (hired)

Join us!

How to follow an event on Twitter

Keeping up with all photos, videos and Tweets about an event is easy when you use the right tools.

So instead of going to twitter.com as you normally might, sign in using your regular Twitter username and password at tweetdeck.twitter.com (TweetDeck is Twitter's multi-timeline view usually favoured by pro users) and follow the instructions set out in this short video, which explains it using the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics as an example.

Similar search filtering would work whether you're following a breaking news story or an online celebrity Q&A.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFP6ITnv0NE

You can use TweetDeck on the web at tweetdeck.twitter.com

What’s happening?

Twitter logoI couldn't be more excited about my next move. I'm joining the design team at Twitter!

I can think of no other product with which I've built such a relationship, or use so frequently. Twitter is clearly a huge deal – it feels like it's being woven into the very fabric of the web and beyond, and is totally revolutionising mass, instant, and shared communication. As Mike Davidson (their VP of Design) so perfectly summed up, Twitter is "one of the most important information platforms in the world."

I opened my Twitter account when the number of people tweeting barely reached five figures, and seeing it evolve from mundane early tweets to today's tweets, which are disrupting entire industries, winning elections, helping topple oppressive regimes, and literally saving lives – has been amazing.

I can't wait to  see  help shape how it develops.

I'll miss working with the amazing folk at GDS, creating GOV.UK. From the simple beginnings of Alphagov with a dozen of us in a disused government office that we even had to furnish ourselves, to the 200-strong team now at the heart of government, leading the charge on the public sector digital revolution, winning awards, and saving £42m of taxpayer's money to-date… what an adventure! Thanks for the exciting times, and may you have many more ahead. As GDS' illustrious leader might say: Onwards!

PS – see you on Twitter.

Update: I've just blogged about my time in government, over on the GDS blog.

Design of the Year, 2013

Amazing news – we just won the overall and digital category of the Design Museum's "Design of the Year" Award for GOV.UK! I'm so proud to work with the amazingly talented team at the Government Digital Service, and we're all over the moon! And beyond that, we couldn't be doing what we're doing without the help, support, and hard work of countless teams across government – this is a win for us all.

Awards

The jury voted unanimously for GOV.UK to win the overall award, which is especially thrilling. It also won the Digital category, announced last week, and is the first website ever to win. And such a huge surprise, against stiff competition from dozens of nominations including The Shard, the Raspberry Pi computer, Windows Phone 8, and Heatherwick's 2012 Olympic cauldron.

I'm collating some screenshots of the press we've received, and have included links through to the articles if you fancy a read. My parents will certainly be proud to see the project on BBC News!

GOV.UK - homepage

GOV.UK - VAT rates page

Revolutionising GOV.UK – IA Summit 2013

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of being invited to present the GOV.UK design principles at the IA Summit in Baltimore. It was a wonderful and inspiring conference, and my talk was well received. I also had time at the weekend to drive a Dodge Challenger down to Washington, which was fun!

I promised to publish my slides online – sorry it's taken longer than expected to add meaningful captions and explain in text some of the things that I covered speaking, but I hope that's useful.

[slideshare id=19089030&doc=revolutionising-govuk-paul-annett-at-ia-summit-2013&w=470&h=420]

 

Later this year I'll be speaking at Webdagene in Norway, From the Front in Italy, and the Web Developer Conference in the UK. Tickets for each are available now – hope to see you there!

If you'd like me to speak at your event, please get in touch.

GOV.UK beta

I joined the Cabinet Office as Creative Lead at the Government Digital Service last year. We're doing more than redesigning a website; we're revolutionising the way government interacts with the public, making it painless for you to apply for a passport, claim benefits, register to vote, or file your tax return (well, it's all relative!) and saving a tonne of public money in the process. Read more...

Read More

Many tracks fail (with no error) when importing thousands of songs into iTunes (Mac)

I recently had a mammouth clean-up of my iTunes libraries, which basically involved bringing everything together in one new location on an external HD, and re-importing 10,098 tracks into iTunes (that's about 59GB of music). Problem was, I ended up with a few thousand less tracks actually in iTunes than expected, no matter which obvious way of importing them I used. I had tried dropping my content into the "Automatically Add to iTunes" directory, and I'd tried dropping my content from the Finder directly into the iTunes window (each time about a dozen artists per batch, in case it failed half way through). Here's what finally worked…

EDIT: I don't think I tried File -> Add to Library, as the thought of managing 10,000 tracks through a tiny dialog box in batches of a dozen or so artists didn't appeal.

So… there's plenty of software which locates "missing tracks" – tracks iTunes knows about but which are no longer where they should be in the file structure – but that's a red herring. I couldn't find anything explaining the opposite, hence writing this blog post.

In fact the solution is remarkably simple, though discovering it took time as the failed attempts with this many tracks were very time-consuming.

So, after dropping batches of 'artist' folders into the iTunes window (each containing possibly multiple 'album' folders, each containing multiple tracks), I had 39GB in iTunes when Finder was reporting 59GB of content in the folders. The file structure itself would be taking up some space, but not 20GB. Where were the missing tracks?!

Basically, you need to drop files rather than folders of files into the iTunes window. Easier said than done when your files are spread over hundreds of nested folders. I also did them in groups by file type (I read somewhere that this might make a difference, but I have no idea if it did).

To do this, I typed MP3 the search box in the top right of my Music folder window, filtering to the current folder and file name. The "+" icon to the right expands some advanced options, letting me refine to "Kind" is "Music" – then I deleted MP3 from the search box (one character at a time, as clicking the 'X' cancels the search entirely). Finding music.

So now I have a raw list of all music files within the Music folder, but without the directory structure. Dragging and dropping all the tracks from here was the only thing that worked without missing any tracks. In fact, since most of the tracks were already in iTunes, it fairly quickly worked out what was missing and added just those. You don't need to worry about it adding duplicates – it won't.

The lesson I've learnt? Don't drag folders of music into iTunes – it may miss tracks without telling you, and you may find out when it's too late (especially if you have hundreds of 90s back-catalogue b-sides which you can't easily rip from CD again).

UPDATE: I've found a great bit of software called Song Sergeant, which among other handy library-cleanup actions, "discovers orphaned song files which exist within your iTunes music folder but do not appear in iTunes itself" — this is exactly what I could have done with a week ago!

Social login + social history

Estimated reading time: just a minute! More and more sites are using third party authentication to set up an account or sign in to their services. Typically, I've experienced this as "login with Facebook", but some offer many different login options: Google, Twitter, Open ID, Windows Live…

Only last week, Spotify came under fire for its announcement that from now on you will need a Facebook account to be able to sign up to their service.

Janrain offers social logins as a service, and claims to "hide the complexities of implementing website authentication", although their own login screen couldn't be more overwhelming with different logos. Expecting everyday users to understand the paradigm of authenticating with a third party is challenging enough, but adding a smorgasbord of different brands to the screen just adds complexity and confusion.

Janrain login options

So that got me thinking… using something like socialhistory.js in this context (for which it was not intended), to display only the logos of sites that the user's browser has previously visited may reduce this complexity. It's a technique that's sometimes frowned upon as it can be misused to maliciously capture browsing history, but in this instance it's entirely justifiable as it's simply used to make people's lives easier.

I'd be interested in your thoughts, although I'm not involved in the 'identity' community. Has somebody already thought of this and dismissed it? Or is it too much of a short-term fix to a bigger problem which needs to be addressed? socialhistory.js isn't new, so I'm surprised I haven't seen this anywhere… or maybe I have, but it's so effective that I haven't noticed!

(and do I get extra points for using 'paradigm' and 'smorgasbord' in one sentence? ;-) )

How a vote against capital punishment could help get it reinstated

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes Earlier this week, the new Government Digital Service published the first user-submitted petitions on the new Directgov "e-petitions" website.

The press duly made a scandal out of nothing by running headlines claiming that as a result, the Government would soon be forced to debate the return of capital punishment.

In truth, when they ran that story the petition to restore capital punushment had only a few hundred votes – more than 100,000 are needed for an issue to even be considered by the Backbench Business Committee, who then decide if it will be debated in Parliament. The petition now has in excess of 8,000 votes (it could be argued that this is a result of the press coverage), but that's still less than a tenth of the total needed to even be considered for debate.

What's interesting is the petition-signing mechanic. Here's why:

Somebody has set up an opposing petition to retain the ban on capital punishment, which at the time of writing has over 15,000 signatures. What I find interesting is that if either the pro- or the anti- capital punishment petition is successful, the outcome would be that Parliament would debate whether capital punishment should be restored, or whether the ban on it should be retained.

i.e. A vote for either petition is a vote for the same thing.

When an appeal against a prison sentence is successful the sentence is reconsidered, and sometimes increased. In the same way a debate about retaining the ban on capital punishment could hypothetically result in the ban being removed.

I'm wondering if perhaps a better mechanic would be that of an online poll. As Stefan Czerniawski asked on Twitter: "If I can vote for an e-petition, why can't I vote against it?"

It might work better if the petition were in the form of an issue, and the pubic were asked "Should this idea be debated in Parliament?" Yes / No

If the Nos were offset against the Yeses, and the threshold of 100,000 lowered to 50,000, that might work better.

UPDATE – an even better option proposed by Paul Brewer on Twitter would be to count the total number of signatures, but ask people to choose if they're for or against the issue when they sign. That gives a view of both how important the issue is to everybody, and the split for/against.

--

This is exactly the kind of user behaviour that couldn't be anticipated before launch, but since the GDS will be actively improving the e-petitions site over time it may be something that can be rolled into a future release.

I'll definitely be watching the development of the site with interest.

One final unrelated pause for thought... I wonder if the e-petitions URL lost the hyphen in the same swamp of punctuation that the Directgov URL found a dot? ;-)

Disclosure: I work at the GDS, part of the Cabinet Office, though I wasn't involved in the creation of the e-petitions site.

Trust these muppets with our money?

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes Two examples of banks giving me ridiculously stupid security advice.

Firstly, when the original NatWest iPhone app came out but before it was well publicised, I stumbled upon it on the App store and thought I'd give it a try.

It was (and continues to be) made by an unknown third party called Monitise Group Ltd. Naturally worried about giving my bank details to a random company, I took the app into a branch of NatWest to ask if it was genuine.

They hadn't heard of it, and could find no mention of it on their intranet. The lady at the enquiry desk took a look at the app, shrugged, and said that because it had their logo and looked like she would expect an official app to look, it must be genuine!

So there you have it. If you make some software with NatWest's logo on it, they will happily tell their customers to trust it with their bank details.

Is this a card skimming device to steal your bank details? Or the security device it claims to be? A few months later I was at a Lloyds TSB cashpoint, and noticed a strange plastic device over the slot, and a sticker saying "this security device has been fitted to the cash machine to protect your card details". Not likely!

We're told not to trust ATMs which look like they've been tampered with in case criminals are 'skimming' card details as the card passes into the slot, so this immediately raised a red flag to me. I didn't use the machine, and I called the bank, who agreed it sounded suspicious and said they'd send somebody to look at it.

When I got home, I searched the web to see if I could find any more details. Unbelievably, it seems the device is genuinely there to add security by making the slot an odd shape, so criminals can't attach card skimmers. It's known as an anti-skimmer, or a "full insert protruding card reader".

They're teaching people that it's okay to use a cashpoint with a weird device attached to the slot. And no doubt the card fraudsters are busy making skimming devices that fit around or even look like anti-skimmers. Who made this ridiculous decision? This is a real life example of the password anti-pattern which was so prevalent online a couple of years ago.

This would be laughable if we didn't have to trust banks with our money.

Uppercase, lowercase

Did you know that the origin of the words uppercase and lowercase dates back to the early days of the printing press? Individual letters were stored in compartmentalised cases. The more commonly used 'small' letters were kept in the lower case, within easy reach of the typesetter. The capitals and accented letters were kept in the upper case – a little further to reach because they weren't required as often.

Cases of type

Cases of type at Ditchling Museum.

Accessibility. You're doing it wrong.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes Only have a few minutes? Skip to the section on Extending accessibility…

I've spent over a decade creating websites for a living, and only recently have I worked on a project which included some research with disabled and deaf people, observing their online habits and chatting about their needs. This has changed everything. I'm no expert (yet), but I found it fascinating, and hopefully some of the insight I gained will be useful and interesting to you, too.

A few years ago, whilst at Clearleft, I designed the website for an assistive technology provider, but any actual observational research was out of scope for the project so even then my understanding of accessibility was only hearsay. I would suggest that this is fairly typical of most website designers' understanding of the subject, despite the fact that nearly a third of the population (in the UK) have some kind of accessibility requirements. Many of those people struggle on without knowing that things could be better, so imagine their delight if a website offered to make a transaction easier than they thought possible.

I knew, as no doubt you do, that people who had problems with their eyesight might use a screen reader so their computer reads a page aloud, or might want a high contrast version of the site (back then I hadn't considered other colour variations for people with dyslexia or colour blindness), or may want to enlarge the text on a site to make it more legible.

I was opposed to replicating the browser's text resize controls within the page, but I realised that people might expect those controls, so I included them as a link to instructions on how to use the browser's own functionality instead (teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish, so to speak). I stand by this as A Good Idea, although I've never seen it done that way on other sites.

Of course, I also understood the importance of alt-text on images, skip-to-content links before navigation, and using semantically meaningful HTML. This is all well documented good practice, but watching disabled people use the web has made me realise that whilst these things are very useful, "accessibility compliance" really covers only the bare minimum we should be doing to meet disabled people's needs. We are merely ticking the boxes rather than considering context. Rather than being user-centred.

So, earlier this year I created a prototype venue and event listing site specifically for use by people with access requirements. Listing sites are a dime a dozen, but pretty much all of them fall down when it comes to accessibility, especially in its broader sense. I worked with Lizzie Ostrom from A+E, the client was Alison Smith from Pesky People, and the site will be called Go Genie. The purpose of the prototype was to show where people's needs aren't currently catered for, to demonstrate our ideas to fill these gaps, and to secure funding for the site's development.

We spent a few days with people who have a variety of visual impairments, hearing problems, learning disabilities, and motor disabilities. As we'd only enlisted a couple of dozen people for this research these are personal anecdotes rather than hard-and-fast rules – everyone has different needs, which makes addressing them all a near impossible challenge. Nevertheless, there are some enlightening observations about how disabled folk use the web and – as importantly as web accessibility – the kind of information they're looking for online which would help them become more participatory in society. Here's a summary of some what we learnt.

Non-disabled people You may have noticed that I referred to "disabled and deaf people" back there. This is because people who are deaf or hard of hearing do not always consider themselves to be disabled, even though they might find accessible features helpful. Indeed, as we get older we naturally begin to have mild access needs without being "disabled" – I often use Readability to make article text larger, clearer, and uncluttered, but I don't consider myself to be visually impaired.

Browser text resize Just like non-power-users without access needs, disabled people don't necessarily know what their browser can already do to help them. Don't assume that they will know about the browser's text resize feature just because they are the ideal target audience for it. Why isn't there a campaign to educate people about this feature? This seems like an easier win than getting every website to implement its own text-resize controls.

OS built-in accessibility A number of people is our observation sessions chose to use the operating system's built-in accessibility features to customise the machine's behaviour to their own requirements. This is worth noting, because unlike in-page contrast options or browser text resizing there's no way that a website can know if someone is using these features, making it harder (impossible?) to gain accurate metrics of accessibility setup from your site logs. (I'm not a techie, so please correct me if I'm wrong here!)

Extreme zoom Registered blind people often have some degree of sight. We observed that some people will zoom in so far that only a few words at a time fit on the screen, then move their face to within an inch of the monitor to read the text one word at a time, moving the screen along each line with the mouse as they go. The process is long and arduous, and highlights the need for keeping text concise and line-lengths short.

Columns and physically grouped content This kind of extreme zooming can make it hard to find your way around even a single web page. To make this less of a burden, physically grouping similar elements on screen and arranging content in columns rather than in a staggered layout helps. I used to be of the opinion that an accessible website needn't compromise the design of the page (because you can make it accessible with code, right?), but now I realise that accessibility is just as much about visual design patterns and layout as it is about coding style, and also content. That doesn't mean an accessible page has to be ugly – chances are the more outlandish design would have also been unnecessarily complex in design, and therefore harder to use anyway.

Video content for people with learning disabilities In our research, people with some learning disabilities would arrive at a website from Google and just look at the screen, and if they couldn't see the information they were looking for then they'd assume it wasn't there. They wouldn't consider scrolling, or clicking on a link. Depending on the content, it would appear that providing a video version of the page would be a good solution to this because it would put all the information in one physical place on the screen (just revealed over time as the video plays). However, this brings about questions of cost, maintainability, and scalability.

If somebody tells you accessibility is free, quick and easy to implement then they're talking about the ticking-the-boxes kind, but video is one of the things that can be expensive and time consuming to source to a professional standard. The content of most importance to people with these access requirements should be given priority for video versions, bearing in mind that if the content changes then the video would need to change too. Don't do this kind of accessibility early in the development process if your content isn't yet finished, and ask the producers to keep the source files for future amendments. Also worth noting that videos need captions (or sign language) for people who are hard of hearing – often this can be switched on and off in the player, so it's not intrusive for people who don't need it.

Access symbols These icons are universally recognised and should be used whenever providing information for people with access needs. Note the last symbol – this isn't just about disabled users!

Access symbols

"But half those symbols represent someone offline, and the mother-and-child aren't even disabled. How is this relevant to the web?" I hear you say. I'm glad you asked…

Extending accessibility to include online advice about offline situations One of the major things that struck me from this research is that disabled and deaf people often lack any confidence that real-world situations will be accessible to them, so they tend to stay home and not participate in society as much as they could. Given the power and opportunity that the web affords us, it's sad that this remains a problem – though possibly not surprising as I wouldn't have thought about it were it not for this research.

To give you an example, somebody in a wheelchair may never go to the cinema because they don't know how easy it is to get to, or what the access is like when they get there.

  • Is there a train station nearby?
  • Is the cinema near any rowdy bars which may have intimidating drunks outside after the show?
  • Is there disabled parking? How far is it from the entrance?
  • What's the terrain like from the parking to the entrance – Uphill? Downhill? Across roads?
  • Are there dropped-kerbs? Are they good quality or do they dip below the road surface causing an unexpected bump?
  • Can I sit with my friends in the cinema or is there a separate area for people in wheelchairs?
  • Is that area raised, and if so will I block the view of anyone sitting behind, and be considered an inconvenience?
  • Are there closed captions?
  • Is there an induction loop for people with hearing aids? Is it always turned on? Do the staff know how to use it?
  • Are the staff well trained in helping people with disabilities?
  • Are there concessionary prices for disabled people? What makes someone eligible for those prices? (more than one person reported being humiliated when staff doubted the authenticity of their disability, because it wasn't visibly obvious)
  • Etc.

The list of potential questions can get very long and it's a difficult balance between providing enough detail and providing an overwhelming amount. This information can be different for each type of venue, and at least it only has to be provided once, but unless you have infinite time and resources then a pragmatic approach to prioritising what's important for your site is clearly the way to go. From a disabled user's perspective, maybe a good solution is for them to tell a site what their access needs are so that the site can provide only the info relevant to them.

Putting this amount of thought into accessibility could really make the difference between someone having a great experience or never bothering at all. It's not about just giving them the ability to read a website, these are the kinds of extra steps that could could literally change someone's life for the better.

A footnote about Alpha.gov.uk The Go Genie prototype consisted of an imagemap-based walkthrough of a few mocked-up pages of the site (here's a video, starting with a clickable Go Genie widget on the Birmingham Hippodrome website), and some storyboards explaining some typical scenarios. The prototype itself was not available to the public, and wasn't accessible of course, because it's purpose was in part to secure the required funding to develop it with accessibility (and congrats to Alison, as Go Genie is now funded!).

In this regard there are interesting parallels to the recent Alpha.gov.uk prototype I worked on for the Cabinet Office. The purpose of the prototype was similar in many ways, but we took the extra step of making it available to most of the public. Despite the fact that we used semantically meaningful markup, skip-to-content links, alt-text on images, correctly labelled form elements, and added the caveat that we knew accessibility was one of the many things on the site that was unfinished in the incredibly short amount of time we'd had, we still received some very hostile criticism from some accessibility advocates for daring to release something (even a demo) that wasn't totally accessible.

That's a real shame – the team want to seek external advice on the matter, but it's also a natural human reaction to want to avoid aggression and seek constructive and helpful criticism instead. I'm sure that as ever it's only a vocal minority that are being unfriendly in their approach to the project, but it still leaves a bitter taste after all the efforts we had made. The points might be valid, but hostility doesn't win any friends.

Maybe I'll hook the team up with the disabled folk who helped out on the Go Genie prototype, who by contrast were delightful and very eager to have their voices heard and I'm sure would welcome the opportunity to have some input into the new Government site.

I'm interested in reading your (non-aggressive!) comments below, or via Twitter @paulannett.

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Launching a prototype Government site – alpha.gov.uk

For the past few months, Relly and I have been part of the team working with the Cabinet Office on an early proof-of-concept of what the UK Government could do with one central website instead of hundreds. Relly strategised the content, and I led the design. The site is called Alpha.gov.uk, and this week the team of 16 – led by Tom Loosemore (ex-Channel 4, BBC) – flicked the switch and made the prototype available for public use.

We were nervous about the potential reaction to what is a functional but knowingly-incomplete first pass at addressing the huge challenges of online Government. It's unusual for any site prototype to be available beyond internal use, but in a radical move for Government we wanted to be totally open about what we were doing and welcoming of external feedback from the start. We made sure the prototype was clearly labelled as such, and set up a Facebook page for people to leave publicly visible feedback.

Overwhelmingly, the response was incredibly positive. We really couldn't have hoped it to be better. There were obviously questions – many hundreds of them, and most of them curious, helpful and good natured. The team are trying to keep up with responding on the feedback page and the @alphagov Twitter account (and our own personal accounts), but we are just physically unable to answer them all – sorry! Still, we seem to have also an impact with our level of transparency and engagement.

As was to be expected there were a some people who would be critical no matter what we'd done. A few said it was a waste of money, but the Government currently spends £128 million per year on maintaining hundreds of sites, and literally billions supporting offline transactions which would be more efficient if moved online. From where I'm sitting, £261,000 ex VAT (total price of the project) is a worthwhile investment to prototype a replacement (note: it's not an additional website), even if it save just 50% of their existing online costs. Some naysayers seemed surprised that we were open about the cost, perhaps even disappointed as they had relished the idea of a struggle to get it released.

The project received (and is continuing to receive) a boatload of press, and even some journalists who are normally critical of the Government's forays online conceded that this was a step in the right direction, with the caveat that they've seen steps in the right direction before which have been less than successful. I can reassure you that on this occasion the Government have acknowledged previous web failures and decided to manage this project differently.

They sourced experienced contractors to work with them as an in-house team, rather than giving the entire job to an external agency to complete remotely. They agreed to an Agile workflow, which allows more room for experimentation and fast iteration around loosely defined requirements, keeping us flexible as the project unfolded. They agreed to releasing the prototype early and iterating rapidly and frequently – since we put the prototype live we've been able to respond to dozens of ideas and issues, and actually fix problems and release updates to the product sometimes within minutes of them coming to light.

And they agreed to more openness – the team have received requests to talk about the process at a few events and conferences, and are open to more invitations. (interested? email me on paul [at] alphagov.co.uk)

The site has been winning praise from both at home and overseas, and other Government bodies have said they're watching the project with interest to see if there were lessons they could take away for their own sites.

Personally, the last few months have been the most fun I've ever had creating a website. To go from pretty much nothing to a complex working prototype (which is actually better than many production sites out there) in such a relatively short space of time – and get such a positive response – has been wonderful. The team worked fantastically together, and have been a real pleasure to work with and a flippin' good laugh too – I'd gladly work with any of them again and I hope we have an opportunity to do so soon.

Finally, we'd obviously love to read your input, so please take a look at our work…

Selected media coverage:

BBC News

Guardian Tech Weekly podcast

The Independent

Wired

The Telegraph

Financial Times

The Register

.Net Magazine

IT Pro

Introducing Alphagov

I can finally stop biting my tongue about the exciting work we've been doing recently at Supernice. I say we, as from last month my lovely wife, Relly, joined the company full-time. Since then we've been working with Tom Loosemore (formerly of 4iP, Ofcom, BBC, mySociety) to provide design and content strategy for the UK Government's "@alphagov" project. Both Relly and I feel honoured and fortunate to be part of such an awesome team, charged with creating a proof-of-concept of how the Government's many diverse web services could manifest themselves in a more cohesive manner under a single domain, as outlined in last year's report by Martha Lane Fox.

The single domain approach would be very beneficial for users, who would no longer have to navigate the departmental structure of Government before finding the service or content that they need. It would also facilitate the creation of a shared, agile, cost-effective suite of web technologies - an approach could offer significant savings. For more details, I suggest you read Martha's report (2.58MB PDF).

Normally an early-stage "Alpha" product like the one we're creating would never be seen by the public, but in the spirit of open development and transparency we're keen to show our work and solicit feedback during the development process. The first solution to a problem is rarely the right solution, and much of what you see will not be a refined final piece. Getting there takes iteration and testing, and over the coming weeks I'll be sharing different designs of various parts of the site, hopefully with improvements as we go.

In early May the prototype Alphagov site will launch, and you'll be able to interact with some pages as if it were the real Government site, although much of it will remain unfinished and contain inaccuracies. Taking Alphagov beyond Alpha to a completed site would take considerably more time than the 8 weeks we will have had, and (for the moment at least) whether the project continues beyond May is unconfirmed.

Leaving a high profile web design company as successful as Clearleft to set up my own business last year was a bit of a gamble, but our recent work for CBS Interactive, Tesco, the BBC and now the UK Government reassures me that it was a gamble worth taking!

Our contract with the UK Government comes to an end in May. If you'd like to work with Supernice this summer, we'd love to hear from you.

The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Cabinet Office have all blogged about the Alphagov project, if you'd like to learn more.

To watch as the project takes shape, follow @alphagov on Twitter. You might also want to follow me.

I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below! Relly has also blogged about Alphagov.


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15m viewed YouTube video, some interesting stats

It's been nearly four years since I last blogged about the magic video I uploaded to YouTube, so I figure it's about time for an update with some interesting stats. I have no way of contextualising 15 million views, so I thought I'd put that in some perspective.

  • That's 170 Wembley stadiums full. Or two New York Cities.
  • Or the population of New Zealand, Denmark, and Singapore combined.
  • If those 15 million views were consecutive, it would take you over 35 years.
  • If you only did that during work hours, it'd take you 150 years (but at least you'd be getting paid).
  • At the average American wage, that lost productivity would have cost $6 million *
  • If every viewer laid end to end (assuming an average height of 5'8"), they'd reach three-quarters of the way around the world.
  • If they all stood on each other's shoulders, they'd reach nowhere near the moon.

So that's the next goal folks. Let's reach the moon. Please link, tweet, Facebook etc.

Click here to tweet a link to the video!

Video URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tScm-eZInBE

* Before we start feeling guilty about lost productivity, remember that at 1m14s the clip is the perfect length to watch in your coffee break!

Farewell Brighton, my old friend

We moved to Brighton in 2003, and on 3rd July 2010, we move away. Our youngest chap, just past his first birthday, has frequently been pretty poorly and childcare for sick children doesn’t come cheap. So our family is moving to Wokingham in the home counties, closer to my wife's parents, so we can continue to work in the industry we love, and bring up our children in the best way we know how.

It’s a wrench. We moved here, got married here, bought a house here, had two kids here, and have many lovely friends here, and Brighton is a place we love deeply.

But there are positives to moving away – our eldest will hopefully attend my wife's old school and we have found a lovely house on the same road as her childhood home, with a garden and a fantastic large home office which I'll need now that I've left Clearleft.

What the area lacks in Big City attractions and beaches it makes up for in small-town charm and countryside. It's very near Reading and it's just as close to London, both of which hold UX contracting opportunities for me. And it's only an hour and a half from Brighton – so plenty of chance to keep in touch with friends, and even meet up with old ones more often.

So au revoir, Sussex. It’s been emotional.

PS – if you're in the Reading area and need an experienced UX Designer on a freelance or contract basis, please get in touch. I'm fully booked in July, but currently have some availability in August.