Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
The one at the bottom is the new site, with a snapshot taken today, the old version is from 10th January. The change of platform, whilst neither here nor there in terms of design, marks the near culmination of a change of strategy agreed 30 months ago when it was decided not to invest further in DotP, the multi-site content management platform. Rather than harp on about the merits or otherwise of this decision, I thought I'd share a couple of fond memories from DotP's early days.
Lesson 1: Always be clear about your requirements lest they be misunderstood
During the development stage, I was wandering through the offices of the lead delivery company, Sapient, and glanced over the shoulder of one of the developers. He was checking out some screen designs he'd just built. I noticed that the URL had a series of "║" embedded in the text. I asked him what they were doing there and he explained that they were "pipes". I knew that, but I wanted to know what they're doing there - I suspect they're the rarest character in terms of usage on the keyboard of the average user. I told him that was no good, no one would be able to figure out how to type them. I wandered away.
Probably 6 months later, I was looking at the pre-launch version of ukonline.gov.uk (it wasn't yet directgov) and I looked at the URLs again. They were practically 3 lines long - once you got past the home page. I don't remember the exact comment but I imagine it was a string of expletives followed by a "get rid of those". I was told that I'd asked for them to be that way "as I didn't like pipes". Not quite the way it happened but it seems that the conscientious developer had taken my advice not to use pipes and come up with a different way of handling URLs, but the result was 180 characters of URL per page.
I never again looked over the shoulder of a developer and made an arbitrary comment.
Lesson 2: When you're right, you're right, even when no-one agrees with you
One of the things that we decided to day with DotP, right from day one, was not to support inline links (e.g. click here). I don't remember who made that decision, I do know it wasn't me; when it was explained to me, I got it right away. We didn't want inline links for a couple of main reasons
1) It creates a sight that is fundamentally difficult for a screen reader to navigate and we wanted to have the most accessible sites possible. I know that I use embedded links in this blog, but then again, this isn't designed to be accessible.
2) When links break and need to be removed, whole chunks of text need to be rewritten. In fact, we created a tool that ensured that links internally within DotP (e.g. from directgov to department of health) never broke - if a page was deleted, we killed the link. If a page changed a chunk of content, we flagged up that it needed to be looked at in case the link no longer made sense. Links break all the time and we wanted to make the maintenance job as simple as possible, or even simpler. As it was, external links, surveyed by our external link checker often broke at the rate of a few dozen a day.
When we tried to explain this to other government departments, ie potential customers of our shiny new shared service, no-0ne got it. They didn't want links to be at the bottom of a paragraph of text, they wanted them embedded in the text because they'd got used to doing it that way.
When we talked about accessibility, few were interested. When we talked about the page maintenance/broken link story, few seemed to get it. We tried all sorts of angles and, every single time that I remember, the final request was always whether we could change the system so that it would support inline links.
We tried this with businesslink, with HM customs, with Cabinet Office, with every department and the answer was always the same. The only exceptions were the folks in the Department of Health and those charged with launching the Child Trust Fund (although there's another story about a giraffe there that should perhaps remain a dark secret for now).
Anyway, good luck to the new platform for direct.gov.uk. You've spent 30 months creating a site that is the same as the old one; I'm looking forward to seeing what new things can be done with the new service that couldn't be done with the old one.
Monday, January 22, 2007
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
- P.S. There's an e-government hook here, especially given all this talk of joined up data sharing. Departments don't call anything the same as each other - not even items that you might consider simple, such as the definition of "child". With complicated identifiers like national insurance number, tax reference number, NHS number and so on, bringing the records together will be lots of fun. More on that another time.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Last night's London Evening Standard accuses Labour of "selling votes" to choose the next PM. Apparently, party chiefs have put the word out that you get to vote on the party leader and deputy-leader and, in a one time, first of its kind special not-to-repeated offer, have the "privilege" and "responsibility" of choosing the new premier. The Labour website puts it this way
Join the Labour Party by direct debit
Being a member of a political party means a lot and in the coming months our members will be asked to elect a new Leader and Deputy Leader for the Labour Party, and, for the first time in history, the next Prime Minister. Never before has the membership of any political party had such power to shape the future of British politics, nor such a responsibility to the people of Britain, and the history of our movement. It is a responsibility and a privilege.
Opposition MPs, meanwhile, condemn this as demeaning the electoral process (and as highlighting the party funding crisis). The LibDems, not wanting to be left out, insist that whoever succeeds the PM should call a snap election to get a mandate from the people rather than the Labour party (apparently ignoring the precedent set by Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home, James Callaghan and John Major).
Labour party members will get 1/3 of the available votes for choosing the PM, with the balance being split equally between parliamentarians (MPs) and unions. Surely, rather than demeaning the electoral process, this presents a fantastic opportunity for those with an interest in one candidate or another to make their case and influence the outcome; likewise it presents an even better opportunity for those of a mind to make their vote one of protest and have it count in a completely different way. There are only a few hundred thousand Labour Party members, so flood their coffers with funds and make your vote count.
In the land of Radio, there were complaints that Radio 4's annual Christmas repeal a law contest had been hijacked by the pro-hunting brigade. What a surprise. An online, public vote that gets won by a campaign that's shown its ability to organise, just as the anti-hunting lobby has.
And in TV-land, Big Brother 417 is on (I'm reminded of the poster in Demolition Man showing an elderly boxer under the caption "Rocky XXXVII" or something. Those with long memories will remember talk of an e-government enabled general election, driven by the huge traffic that votes for Big Brother ejections.
So now, all we have to do is combine the election for PM, the campaigning capability of special interest groups and an online/text voting system like Big Brother's and we might be able to put together a killer online government application of a kind never before seen anywhere in the world. And the entry fee is only £36.
- So here's my action plan for an exciting leadership election: Make the election online and dynamic so every vote cast (via web, text or phone) can be seen on a web page; the only qualification for entry is a valid debit card and an address that matches the debit card
- Split the £36 per member entry fee with £5 going into a prize fund, winner to be chosen at random, £25 to Labour party funds and £6 to opposition party funds (in the ratio of seats held in parliament). Why £36? well, that's the current fee and it seems like a reasonable number
- Make room for two votes - (1) who do you want to be Labour party leader (only existing MPs eligible for votes) and (2) who do you expect to become Labour Party Leader. All those who get (2) right enter the prize fund draw, getting over the need for a "game of skill" qualification
- Make the £36 fully tax deductible for individuals, the same way that GiftAid is
I can see a million entries right away. What do you think?Sit down that person at the back that suggested we put all the candidates in a house for a couple of weeks and watch them interact. That's what Parliamentary TV is for.
[composed and posted with ecto which seems to be causing some format problems that I need to work on]