Digital Transformation Fund – Content Design Discovery Project
Blog written by Matt Lucht, contracted Delivery Manager for the project.
Over the past 6 weeks Blaenau Gwent County Council, Newport City Council, Monmouthshire County Council and Torfaen County Council have run a content design discovery project funded by the Welsh Local Government Association, and the project is being supported by the Centre for Digital Public Services.
If we’re being honest, it’s probably a bit of a ‘discovery+’ or a ‘discovery/alpha hybrid’.
We’re pretty confident that there was a problem to solve, but we wanted an alternative approach to highlighting the issue beyond yet another report, and we wanted to showcase the real-life problems citizens are experiencing with our content.
So, what’s the problem?
The local authorities have a shared problem in that content, both online and through other channels, isn’t being managed as effectively or as efficiently as it could be.
Content is often put online in a siloed fashion, with teams organised around departments rather than their end-to-end services, leading to language and terminology inconsistencies.
With pressure to make sure the latest information is published, the idea of managing the content lifecycle and retiring old or out-of-date content is often missed, leading to content becoming confusing or difficult to navigate.
Much of this problem is due to legacy ways of working, and not forgetting the need to manage a tremendous amount of information with increasingly tight deadlines and limited resources.
Content is often written by subject matter experts and while factually accurate, it’s written from an internal perspective. Things referred to as “Council speak” would find their way onto websites to describe or name services, without realising that citizens do not describe the service the same way or use that language in everyday life.
Goals of the discovery
The problems outlined above aren’t new and have been acknowledged in previous service improvement reports. But with many pressures faced by local authorities it’s not been possible to prioritise making those changes. And it’s sometimes difficult to fully grasp the impact changing language can have on residents.
During this discovery we wanted to focus on 2 angles to try and highlight the importance of good content design and to try and raise its priority within the backlog of work.
- Saying that there is a problem is one thing, but observing users experience problems is incredibly powerful.
We wanted to demonstrate the real-life impact that poor content design is having on existing services and how in a relatively short amount of time some small changes could have a positive impact on the experience of users.
- Identify some practical changes that can be made with the existing teams that are in place.
Hiring a team of content strategists, designers and user researchers might seem like the obvious way to improve things, but in reality even if the funding was available to do this there needs to be a willingness across the organisation to work in a different way. By introducing some small changes we hope that this will start to seed that change.
What have we done so far?
We’re 6 weeks into the discovery and have a further 3 weeks remaining. Here’s where we’ve got to so far.
Demonstrating the real-life impact
The number of services that a local authority is responsible for is vast – and this contributes to the problem. We needed to pick a single area to focus on and after some conversations across the 4 local authorities, reviewing some of the web analytics and contact centre data, and with a bit of gut instinct thrown in as well, we decided to look into the area of council tax.
It’s worth noting that we chose council tax not because it was especially bad, but because it was an area with significant complexity in terms of the language used, it was a subject area that was reasonably well understood across the team, it was fairly uniform across all local authorities, and is a service that almost all residents will have to interact with at some point.
Hearing from users
To understand how the council tax service was currently performing we held a number of user research sessions with residents from across each of the local authority areas.
We wanted to demonstrate what it was really like for someone to use the service. Some of what we saw and heard really gave an eye-opening appreciation for how some things that might be considered quite straightforward were actually a significant challenge for many users.
Building a prototype
Armed with evidence from users we set out to build something (a prototype) to demonstrate how an alternative approach might better meet the needs of users.
We only had a little over a week to get the prototype up and running, so had to hold ourselves back from getting too sucked into the details. We also had to remind ourselves that this wasn’t intended to be a full ‘council tax service transformation project’ but focused on how to improve the content design aspects. With that in mind we looked at 2 high-level user needs and purposefully added some hard edges to the user journeys.
The user needs we looked at were:
As a person who lives alone
I want to check whether I qualify for a council tax discount
So that I can reduce my council tax bill
As a full-time student
I want to check whether I qualify for an exemption on paying council tax
So that I can lower my monthly outgoings
We were keen to make the prototype design as collaborative as possible. We started with a one-day workshop where we met in Newport to discuss and prioritise user needs. We also held a content co-design session where we explored various ways of phrasing questions to get the right information from users.
We’re pretty happy with where we got to, we checked it over with subject matter experts and have a prototype that is now good enough to start some user testing.
What’s up next?
Testing the prototype
Over the next week and a half we’ll be testing the prototype with more residents across the local authorities. We’ve 9 sessions lined up with people with a good mix of experience using digital services.
Good practice and next steps
Through looking at the council tax service we’ve learned a lot about the current content creation workflow and where there are challenges, bottlenecks and opportunities to do things differently.
We’ll be writing a mixture of best practice guides and templates for things like establishing user needs, content request forms, how to gather feedback on a service and how to measure the effectiveness of content.
We’ll also be proposing recommendations for continuing this work into an alpha (or perhaps a series of alphas).
For more information you can read an archive of our weeknotes here.
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