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BCCweb – it’s about people not platforms

While it’s been fascinating to see the talk among Bristol’s developer community following the roundtable on Bristol City Council’s Future Web Platform, there does seem to be an element of discussion around the project that is conspicuous by it’s abscence – the end user.

For those not familiar with the project – BCC are commendably taking opinion from Bristol’s digital community on the re-development of the council’s website.

We attended the roundtable last week, and discussion there – and online – since has centered around the arguments for and against the whole gammut of open-source platforms and technologies.

This is a little like architects arguing over the construction materials for a building before finding out what the building is going to be used for. The danger is, you design and build a wonderfully constructed office block when the client wanted a car park.

Doing Stuff

The council has produced a reasonably detailed requirements document – but there is nothing in there that suggests any robust measure of end user needs has been identified, or that suggested functionality has been evidenced against any user needs.

A massive investment in time and resources is being put into identifying and developing a platform before anyone knows what the platform needs to deliver for the people using it.

We risk getting bogged down in a discussion about the most “appropriate” platform before answering the most important question – “appropriate” for whom?

For instance, a lot of the discussion at the roundtable centred around migrating content. But what if the content is part of the problem? There was little or no discussion about content planning, Information Architecture, usability or the end user.

These are the elements that need to be understood first – before any decision on platforms is made. Not least, because they will – or should – be the determining factor in the functionality of the site.

The website needs to do stuff for people who live in Bristol. This “stuff” is the reason for the existence of the site, the technology is simply there to enable this stuff to be done. The CMS is the servant of the project, not the master.

Different platform, same issues

Back in 2007, we carried out an information architecture and usability review of the Bristol City Council Intranet. The issues we discovered with the site largely centred around poor information architecture, out of date and unreliable content, poor search and lack of user customisation functionality.

We’ve just carried out a (rather unscientific) user review of the BCC website and guess what the main issues identified by our user group were? Yup – IA, unreliable content, poor search, no customisation.

No technology solution is going to address the issue of poor content, no customisation functionality is going to understand how people living in Bristol want to customise their site. These are all planning issues.

We were able to deliver a 700% increase in engagement with target areas of the BCC Intranet by making changes to the IA, content and layout of key pages.

The technology didn’t come into it – we had to work within the constraints of the existing intranet platform. Getting a thorough understanding of what staff at the council actually really wanted to be able to do on the intranet did.

However, we also identified that had we been able to change the intranet platform to a more suitable one, we could have made even greater progress.

When we carried out our work on the BCC intranet, we ended our consultancy by discussing the imminent upgrade of the council’s website. Our key recommendation – don’t go out and buy an expensive off-the-shelf CMS and try to shoe-horn your user’s requirements into it, start with the requirements and develop a CMS to match them.

Three years later, we’re sticking to that.

WWT Photography Competition site launched

Our first project with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has just launched – a mini-site for their annual photography competition wwwt.org.uk/photo

The social media-friendly site allows users to upload their photographs, vote, email and link images with Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

The WWT Photography Competition aims to find the best wildlife and scenery photographs taken at any of the 9 WWT centres around the UK, including the famous Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire.

The mini-site is the first of a number of projects we are undertaking with WWT

Latest Project: Somerset Coastal Change Pathfinder

Tickbox have been commissioned to develop this important public-engagement website highlighting the impact of coastal change on Somerset communities.

We are creating a site which will provide information and an online meeting place for communities on the Somerset Coast directly affected by erosion and rising sea-levels.

It is a challenging site, with a very tight deadline, and is calling on a range of skills from complex information architecture planning, to copywriting, SEO and social media engagement.

We’re working on some creative ways to get across what is a complex and occasionally controversial subject in ways that engage, inform and inspire ordinary people to get involved in an issue that will have a significant impact on their communities.

Phase 2 of the project is now live: www.somersetcoastalchange.org.uk

The Tender Trap

What do you do if you are invited to respond to a tender and the company who put it together has got it all wrong?

It’s a tricky question – but one that comes up time and again when it comes to web development.

We recently received a tender brief for redeveloping a website for a South West organisation that immediately raised alarm bells. While the marketing team involved obviously had a clear idea of the issues they needed to address, the proposed solutions set out in the brief were going to cause them as many problems as they solved.

They specifically requested that the tender should reflect a proposed development structure – unfortunately, one where we could see that much of the development work would be duplicated, and key design information architecture work would be carried out after the CMS to support them was built, with potentially serious consequences for usability.

In this kind of situation, we are always faced with the dilemma of whether to simply respond to what the company is asking for in the way they requested, or to let them know our concerns and respond with a proposal to work the way we know is best.

In this case, we decided the best course of action would be to talk to the people who put the tender together and express our concerns that they risked compromising their project – and spending more than they needed to – if the project went ahead as they suggested.

Thankfully, the people we spoke to understood our point straight away and were happy to hear constructive suggestions about their project.

The problem for businesses putting together web tenders is that web development is a mix of different disciplines – it’s part marketing and part web design, you need expertise in both to make it work.

Marketing teams will understand their marketing aims and what the want the site to achieve for them, but often have limited knowledge of the actual technical processes of building a site.

Similarly, pure web design companies will know how the technology works but not how it can best support a businesses marketing aims.

We always recommend that when putting together a web tender, companies should take advice not only from the people in their organisation responsible for marketing but also from people who understand the nuts and bolts of web development. Ideally, both should work together – not just on the tender, but on the whole web marketing strategy.

Not every organisation will get the people they invited to tender picking up on issues with their brief – often, understandably, web companies just aim to meet the brief they have been given.

Don’t fear the Tweeter – opening your business to social media

There was a recent discussion on one of the LinkedIn groups I’m a member of where the question was asked “who owns the responsibility for social media in your company?”

It’s an issue that we come across time and time again – understandably enough. Businesses work hard to maintain and control their public profile, and the idea of allowing free rein to any department to speak publicly for the company can give PR and marketing managers the cold sweats.

But with a little careful planning and training – and an element of trust – having a more open social media policy in your business can reap significant rewards.

Threat or opportunity

Just look at Social Media as another way of interacting with your community – apart from the technology, it’s no different to any other interaction.

There’s often a trust issue (mistrust mostly) when it comes to taking social media out of the hands of marketing or PR teams and empowering different departments.

Companies are used to their “marketing message” being centrally controlled, but in reality it never is. Your staff are sending out a marketing message every time they pick up the phone, talk to a client or supplier, drive around in a van with the company logo on it etc.

If you trust your staff to interact with clients on the phone – trust them to interact using social media.


You train staff to deal with face-to-face customer relations, so train them in social media relations.

Social media is a platform for communication – its not the message – and it’s
no more threatening (and just as much of an opportunity) as the telephone and email. Imagine where your business would be now if you had decided in 1993 that only the marketing team could use email!

With a bit of common sense, and the usual guidelines you’d apply to any public-facing interaction, an open social media policy can have many, many benefits for a company which far outweigh the risks.