GOV.UK’s Design Principles are big news for intranets

Screenshot of the GDS Design Principles web page This week, the UK’s Government Digital Service unveiled a list of ten Design Principles. These are intended for for people building digital services under the GOV.UK domain, but I hope they will prove significant for absolutely anyone creating websites, intranets or other digital services, especially for those of us in-house.

The principles are:

  1. Start with needs (user needs, not Government needs) 
  2. Do less 
  3. Design with data 
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again. 
  6. Build for inclusion 
  7. Understand context 
  8. Build digital services, not websites 
  9. Be consistent, not uniform 
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

For a moment, while reading this, I found myself actually shaking with happiness. It felt so good to see so much of what I believe to be true, put so clearly, in attractive way, by an organisation that needs little introduction.

In the next few days, I can see myself, and I hope many thousands of others pointing it out to any passing chief executive, IT director or communications director, and saying “look, the UK Government says start with user needs.”

That might be an attention-grabber, but I’d argue it is an important one.

The design process must start with identifying and thinking about real user needs. We should design around those – not around the way the ‘official process’ is at the moment
1. Start with needs 

Too many intranet projects ignore user needs in favour of organisation needs, and can only succeed by bending employees behaviour to fit the tool (or being very lucky). By starting with the user, you can help people do what they need to do. This gives you something to build on.

Users are already using our services . This means we can learn from real world behaviour … [we should] continue this into the build and development process – prototyping and testing with real users
- 3. Design with data 

Release Minimum Viable Products early, test them with real users, move from Alpha to Beta to Launch adding features and refinements based on feedback from real users.
- 5. Iterate. Then iterate again 

Don’t just use logs and other evidence to create your next set of designs, take a leaf out of The Lean Startup and test your theories in the next generation of prototypes. And repeat.

We should build a product that’s as inclusive, legible and readable as possible…We’re designing for the whole country – not just the ones who are used to using the web.
- 6. Build for inclusion 

It is so tempting to only consider the most likely users. After all, your project needs their participation to even stand a chance of being a success, but they’re not the whole organisation. Often, the people you can help the most are the ones who’re being helped the least.

We’re not designing for a screen, we’re designing for people. We need to think hard about the context in which they’re using our services. Are they in a library? Are they on a phone? Are they only really familiar with Facebook? Have they never used the web before?
- 7. Understand context 

Context of use is so important, and has been badly neglected through the computer-browser era. We’re beginning to appreciate the benefits of responsive design (btw. try resizing the Design Principles page) and what that can mean for people using anything other than a computer, but there’s something more. Perhaps your user is in a library on a phone? From this point, things are only going to get more complicated – the era of everyone accessing your intranet from Internet Explorer is over.

Our service doesn’t begin and end at our website. It might start with a search engine and end at the post office.
- 8. Build digital services, not websites 

For most businesses, an intranet that only exists for what happens online is meeting only a fraction of its potential. If we start thinking of intranets as being the first part of a digital service, we can start to unlock that potential.

 


Book Review: Designing Intranets by James Robertson

I’ve just posted this review onto Amazon (permalink) and it makes sense to publish it here too.

Book cover of Designing Intranets

A great value distillation of years spent designing and understanding intranets, James Robertson has packed his book with real-world intranet screenshots and experiences.

It’s the kind of book that’s handy to have prominently displayed on your desk or within reach when someone insists their approach is best. The first 50 pages may help correct so many dangerous assumptions, that the book could pay for itself in minutes. That manager over your shoulder might like to ponder why the chapter Developing Page Designs appears almost exactly halfway through the book, and home page design is even further on.

Having helped the reader establish the priorities for the intranet, Robertson introduces a well-tested framework rooted in understanding staff needs. After establishing a brand and strategy, he introduces a user-centred design methodology going through a content inventory, card sorting to “understand how users think”, developing (and then testing) an information architecture, before finally getting onto creating page designs (and then testing them). This is a fleeting introduction to these techniques but, for those readers who require more, Robertson is generous with his recommendations.

Some may be disappointed there is not a universal intranet design that will just work, but here they will find something that genuinely adds value. Experienced designers will find details that illuminate their problems or examples to challenge their assumptions. My largest concern is the book focuses on more traditional intranets, concluding with a few short chapters touching on issues including personalisation/targeting, applications, search, large-scale intranet issues, collaboration and social. The advice remains sound, especially in the context of the book’s advocacy of user-centred design, but that might not be enough for some readers.

With that in mind, I have little hesitation in recommending Designing Intranets. There is something useful to be found on almost any page—whether a principle of good practice, an insight, or one of the many screenshots—to provide great deal of help and context for intranet designers whatever their level of experience.

Step Two Designs: Designing Intranets

[Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from James Robertson]

 

Pebble, Rock, Stone

This is a blog post that has lived with me for several years, and this version originates from August 2010.

Computing has gone mobile, it has moved over more than half a century from room-filling beasts, through so-called mini computers, to the desktop PC and other static devices, through the laptop and onto the mobile phone.

It couldn’t get any smaller, not without changing the way we connect ourselves to the device, so we have seen the next step with the devices getting bigger. The iPad is not the first tablet, but it will probably remembered as such.

Apple appears to be the winner for now, although we have seen how sales of Android phones have overtaken the iPhone in a way many people did not expect.

Oddly enough, I thought Microsoft had won the game a decade ago when it announced its tablet PC version of Windows XP. While others dismissed the idea out of hand, I thought the concept was exactly what people would want when using a device at home or on the move.

I could picture myself at home, in front of a television, using my tablet for web browsing and for controlling my home theatre. Even then it was easy to imagine being able to combine live television and web on a single large screen, combining digital multi-channels, and really being able to command a complete experience.

So, what have we got, and how can that form the complete experience?

The Pebble
This is your mobile phone, you carry it with you 90%+ of the time. It is a powerful computer in its own right, and behind its cellular phone network are banks of datacentres ready to augment that power whenever you need it. Why do you need anything else?

Of course, data entry is difficult, and you wouldn’t want to watch movies on it. Sometimes you need a lot more on screen than something a few inches across can provide at an acceptable speed.

Therefore you need something a little bigger.

The Stone
This is something you can carry with you most of the time. It might be your tablet, or it might be your laptop. A lot depends on the way you need it to be used – whether always on or for something more precise, for example data entry.

It should pair seamlessly with your phone, perhaps relying on its data connection, or augmenting it, even providing a better aerial.

But your phone can add to this equation too. It can be a secondary display, a handset, a remote control, even a portable keyboard or mouse.

You now have a powerful mobile computing platform, but you aren’t always on the move.

The Rock
This is the most flexible of all three (unless you want a fourth category, the boulder perhaps).

It can be a desktop PC at the office or at home. It could be your television and media centre. It could be something that hasn’t yet been dreamed of.

Immediately you have two secondary displays or input devices (actually we need a name for this kind of device) that can act as remote controls or augment the viewing experience. I for one would love to be able to watch Formula 1 races with the ability to select my own camera views, to move them around the screen or display data of my own choice.

Pebble, Stone, Rock
What is important here is that these devices blend together seamlessly. Once paired, they should just work.

There is no reason that it should be Apple phone, Apple tablet, and Apple TV and not playing well with any other devices. It cannot be beyond the wit of companies that stand to make trillions to work out a series of APIs.

Once upon a time, I dreamed that my lightweight MP3 player could talk wirelessly to a battery-powered hard drive in my bag, and from there to my office and home PCs. That was in the days before 3G communication made the wireless web possible, and before Google and Amazon would deploy for me their cloud computers at a moment’s notice.

From now on, devices should not be isolated. It is pretty dire that Apple could not get iPhone and iPad to play together from day one. If Apple doesn’t lead the way, then Google, or perhaps a few Android/Chrome manufacturers must do so.

Time to get blogging again, and my old blog is broken

For reasons too numerous, I’ve much to write about. Things to share, thoughts, ideas, successes, and perhaps a little criticism too.

Then I find my sad, old, abandoned blog at www.halfwaytoreality.com has been broken by one hosting company upgrade too many. This is precipitating my plans to move it to my MediaTemple host, but there are a few dependencies I can’t easily resolve in order to do that easily.

So, please bear with me as I get domains and content over. Similarly, I won’t be making do with the default WordPress theme, but that will take a little time too.

Happy 0th Birthday to Me

Happy 0th birthday

Happy 0th birthday

How nice for My Offers to think of me on my birthday, but I’m sure I remember 30+ birthdays, and really don’t fancy being born again.

Thinking what’s going on behind the scenes, they have mislaid or lost my year of birth (not sure how that can happen) and their email-generating script hasn’t been set up to 1) check if there is no year of birth and 2) not check for rogue values (e.g. below 16 or over 100*)

Okay, they only look silly – and I’ve got a blog posting out of it – but there may be times a “clever” email like this could leave its sender looking more than stupid.

It would also be rude to point out the errors in “to help make this year year’s celebrations celebration one to remember, but I’m clearly too young to know better.

Is anyone policing your out-of-office comments?

How does your organisation represent itself in its emails?

Do you have a brand document that declares in minutiae the absolute font, size, colour and wording of signatures? Do you leave it to managers or individuals? I’ve lost count of the number of job titles I’ve given myself over the years.

Certainly, consistency is good for the brand. And anything that prevents some of those absurd graphics, animations or multi-colour texts cannot be said to be bad.

What about your out of office autoreplies? Do you have any level of advice?

In all honesty, not many people ever see more than a couple. In May, as part of an office-use study, I received over 400. I’m not going to name names, but here are a few highlights:

I am out of the office until Wednesday 30TH May. Please contact XYZ or ABC with any questions.

All other e-mails will be answered on my return.

All e-mails will be replied to on my return.

On dd-dd-dddd I will leave [organisation]. As such I no longer have access to emails.

If you message is related to Sales Development please email [name surname].

If the message is for me please email [freeserve email address]

This one doesn’t help if you don’t know how to contact the relevant team:

I have now left the [organisational team]. Please forward any emails to the [organisational team]who will be happy to help in any way they can. Many thanks

Please note I do not access this E-mail account and consequently your E-mail will not be responded to.

Please use [email in related organisation]

Tactile Phones – forget about touch and haptics

What do you really need from a phone? How do you really use it?

This is something I photoshopped a while back and forgot about, but it seems quite relevant just ahead of the 3G iPhone arriving in shops.

tactile-phones.jpg

Pic 1 is of the LG KF700, another phone trying something different, in this case a spin wheel. It got me thinking about physical feedback from phones. How do you orient it without looking at it? Can you easily switch mode to, say, silent and know that it is in silent mode with it in your pocket?

Pics 2 and 3 are the extension of this thinking. Could you slide the wheel in and out to switch between two modes. Pic 4 is another way of indicating something – perhaps vibrate if there’s a waiting message.

In real life, when you’re walking on the street, you can’t always hear or feel the phone ringing or vibrating in your pocket. In the office, it would be reassuring to know it won’t interrupt that important meeting without obviously switching it off.

What other physical factors would be handy? A quick release keylock that saves you from answering the phone as you struggle to get it out of your pocket? Simple feedback it’s still on? A jog-dial that controls your MP3 playback?

Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t promote anything that encourages fumbling in one’s pockets.

The gold rush to new extensions – Gandi Bar

Like many others, I’ve got mixed feelings about the “relaxing” of top-level domain names. There are great potential domain extensions like .movie, .book, .sony, .apple and many more. Some leave me puzzled, would I prefer myrestaurant.ldn or myrestaurant.london? Some will leave me baffled at their arrogance, ignorance or avarice. No doubt, there will be lots of people wanting to make money off this – all wanting to sell me one extension or another.

And where there’s a rush, there will be people overextending themselves. Maybe it’s expensive and half a million dollars is enough surety, but I’ve got a horrible feeling this could bring down more than a few speculators, risking the domains (and livelihoods) of many, many more.

It’s a relief to see one of my providers, the French firm Gandi, taking a firm line against this, The gold rush to new extensions – Gandi Bar:

Our wish is to provide an irreproachable level of service, and we cannot do this if we are both the judge and the party, the supplier and the reseller, the regulation authority and the distributor. A notary cannot simultaneously be a real estate agent and promoter: this is exactly, at any rate for us, the same problem that is applied to Internet addresses and to the websites that are on them. However, this is what has been happening in recent years, because all of the actors believe that the market is so stupid that it will not wake up one day from its torpor.

Form design – simple mistake

For good or bad, or probably just being plain nosey, I find myself attacking a questionnaire on my radio listening habits.

It’s a long and fiddly one, and just when I find myself getting towards the end, I get thrown by this:

Poll form - thinking vertically not horizontally

A cold viewing, I suspect, would make absolute sense. However, I’ve just been through twenty or thirty pages, with each one’s answers appearing in the horizontal axis. Here I find myself with only three distinct answers for four questions.

Otherwise, don’t get me started on the next button on the left, and the back button on the right.

National Geographic: Swarm Behaviour

National Geographic’s Swarm Behaviour is a thoroughly interesting article on insect behaviour. It discusses how research into insect behaviour is leading to new techniques in problem-solving, management, and artificial intelligence.

It even could shed light on humans and our behaviour.

“A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do,” says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. “None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign.”

Very often, we don’t try to see intelligence elsewhere. We’ve created a definition of intelligence based on what we know.

I like to think that us humans are pattern recognition and replication machines with vastly more soft-wiring than other creatures. Even so, there’s still a lot of hard-wiring and hormonal influences, much more than we would like to believe.

We certainly swarm, drawn to volunteering to mow church lawns or queue for iPhones. Whatever we do, we love to believe we can justify it.