Joined-up thinking

17 01 2013

I’m now blogging for the Scottish Public Sector Digital Group!

Check out my first post, the rest of the blog is even better ūüôā

Social life

20 09 2012

Looking forward to Social Media Week in Glasgow next week. I’m booked up for quite a few sessions, just hope I’m able to attend given the local public holiday weekend and all the last-minute web stuff we’re getting at the moment. Events like these are really important as they give people a chance to step out of their normal work environments to see what their peers are doing in digital communications.

One of the big topics will be access to social media tools from within the workplace. Out of the few websites I find that aren’t blocked by security, about 90% don’t work properly in IE7 (including this one!). Who is Leading? is an event being¬†promoted by my colleagues in the Scottish Public Sector Digital Group and should be well worth going to. Among those speaking at the event will be Gordon Scobbie, one of the best advocates of social media for the public sector I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. This event will be a Question Time style discussion forum talking about how organisational change and cultural change can influence each other. I can’t go to this one as I’ve got to stay home to look after my 10-month-old baby boy, but if it wasn’t for the timing I’d be there with bells on.

Among the events I’m booked to attend are Social in the community, How to build a powerful LinkedIn group and Get started with social media, though I can see this changing as the schedule gets busier. I just tried to check my bookings online and the SMW site doesn’t work in IE7, so I guess I’ll have to stick with these for now!


Poor presentation

22 08 2012

Microsoft has done many great things – not least, they created a host of¬†software so buggy and difficult to manage that they kept me in gainful employment as an IT technician for ten years or so. One thing I will always resent Mr Gates for is the creation of Powerpoint. It’s changed meetings forever, and not in a good way!

Death by PowerpointI’ve lost count of the number of seminars/conferences/dinner parties where the act of¬†disemminating information¬†and discussion seemed secondary; the speakers were more concerned with aligning their bullet points and using outdated transitions between slides. The best speakers use Powerpoint effectively by¬†creating their slides to emphasise key points and illustrate selected ideas. Most of the presentations I receive are not like this. Instead I get a mishmash of photographs, charts and 44pt Arial bold text ending with a question mark.

As manager of a government website I get asked to publish presentations all the time. It would be easy to give in and accept these demands, to believe that there is a desire for such documents to be made available. I’ve heard all the arguments for publication:¬†What about Freedom of Information? The¬†attendees were promised the slides would be made available online. The¬†table on¬†slide 23¬†isn’t available anywhere else.¬†These are not reasons to publish, not when the content hasn’t been designed for an online audience!

There is nothing illuminating about a bunch of slides converted into PDF or (even worse!) PPS format on a website without any additional contextual information. If someone goes to the trouble of creating an all-purpose presentation, including copyright information and captions for all images used, speaking notes, properly marked-up headings and accessible tables then I’ll be only too happy to publish it. Unfortunately, I suspect I could be waiting for a long time before¬†I encounter¬†such a document.

At the moment I can usually resist the demands for publication by referring my colleagues to the guidelines for web accessibility, but even then I still have to give in now and again. As a perfectionist I would love to eradicate them completely, but we don’t live in an ideal world…not yet!

The way the cookie crumbles

2 08 2012

I was recently given a responsibility upgrade and now manage our website. As part of this my first task was to decide how we would comply with the cookie law, so I went for a belts and braces approach. New visitors to our site are now confronted with an obtrusive¬†pull-down lightbox asking if they’re happy to accept our cookies, with an explanatory option going through all the different types of cookie and what they might be used for. I made sure there was an additional “decline and remember” option to enable visitors to refuse all cookies except the one that kept asking them if they would accept cookies. I’m that thorough.

Having been at a number of colleagues’ desks since the implementation of this, I’ve noticed that nearly everyone still has this GUI popping up whenever they visit our site. Despite my going through all the options to make sure we had the best possible information available to our visitors, 90% of people haven’t bothered to read it. When I ask them, they admit to being aware of the cookie law and to knowing that the pop-up¬†must be¬†related to this – but when asked why they didn’t choose one of the options to make the pop-up go away, the response is invariably along the lines of “I didn’t have time to read it properly” or “it’s easier just to leave it.”

As a developer who takes the time and effort to make sure our website and other digital tools are optimised towards the best user experience possible, it’s intensely frustrating to find out that users just want to click and go. The old adage that you can lead a horse to water but not force it to drink has rarely been more appropriate than with today’s web user. You can present visitors with clear signposts to content, well thought-out internal architecture and an excellent search facility, but there will always be people who can’t find things or misunderstand what is there. That’s why it’s so important to remain up-to-speed on usability and design practices, we’ll never please all of the people all of the time but we should try to satisfy as many of them as we can.

Who is this cookie law satisfying at the moment? I don’t feel any safer from scammers than I did before; in fact, the law has generated additional ways to¬†frighten web designers into paying out money.¬†According to a survey in May,¬†4/5 of¬†users now feel safer, though¬† 75% of those asked about it had never heard of the law before. The last-minute change towards implied consent has only muddied the waters and a clear method of compliance has yet to emerge from the depths.

That pop-up at the top of our site bothers me, but at the moment it remains a necessary evil. Not only does it damage the aesthetics of our site (and many others), the implications for accessibility have to be examined and addressed next, to avoid complying with one law only to fall foul of another. Perhaps in time we’ll be able to make the warning a little less in-your-face. Here’s hoping.

Cookie monster

6 06 2012

Hello! I’m back after 6 months of maternity leave and straight into a big kerfuffle on the interweb about cookies. Not the type I’ve been munching on during my yummy mummy lunches, but those pesky bits of code that enable websites to work properly and (sometimes!) to make money.

Cookie monster


Webmasters have been given a year to prepare for the change in the law, but this hasn’t stopped 80% of sites in the UK not complying. I suspect that a lot of this is down to a decision to adopt a “wait and see” approach rather than blind ignorance, as last-minute changes have already been made to the law and a catch-all template for dealing with it has yet to emerge.

E-Consultancy have compared how some of the most high-profile news sites have handled the situation¬†and the results vary significantly. What’s most startling is that only the BBC site can be confident of complying with the law.

So why, when we’ve all had so long to prepare, is it proving so difficult for webmasters to allow users to opt in or out of cookies?

The law is problematic on several fronts. First of all, the ICO admit that they’re not sure¬†how it should be implemented. That’s not a good start! Secondly, the general public are not well¬†informed¬†about what a cookie is, and it’s not really the job of a site selling holidays (for example) to try to sum up what this concept means to their visitors without the existence of one clear resource out there for everyone to refer to. Thirdly, allowing users to easily disable cookies is the easiest way to be certain of compliance but nobody wants to do this as it will stop their site functioning properly! It’s a catch-22 situation.

In their attempts to tackle this problem, sites have resorted to pop-up banners, lightboxes, GUI boxes, Javascript applets and other similarly inaccessible and undesirable elements of web design that usability experts have been campaigning to consign to the dustbin for the last decade. In a further touch of irony, most of these intrusive elements are unable to remember my decision to accept cookies as to do so would itself involve storing a cookie! So I get the same annoying pop-ups each time I visit a site.

Hopefully this will settle down within the next few months, but a more direct lead from the ICO would be appreciated on this one rather than the mass crowd sourcing experiment that’s inadvertently happening just now.

Your Reppler is at stake

13 10 2011

These days, hopefully we’re all at least a bit careful about what we put up on social networks. As a Civil Servant I tend to err on the side of caution, as the press like nothing better than to bash a public servant about something they posted inappropriately. Recently we had another Tweetgate scandal involving Chris Huhne, but such stories are nothing new. From Sarah Baskersville to Stuart MacLennan, the examples of what can happen when the media scent blood are out there for all to see.

I was also vaguely aware that potential employers might want to “vet” candidates online, but I’ve never given the matter much consideration. There is now a tool called Reppler that allows you to vet your own social media profile, and the results are an eye-opener. Here’s a snapshot of my attitude according to recent Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn posts.

My Reppler score

My Reppler score

It’s not too bad, apart from showcasing my obsessive cat tendencies, but I’m left wondering why I didn’t get 100% or why my attitude is only “partly positive”. Will employers see that as a natural thing or will they prefer candidates who are super-positive about everything? Will expressing an opinion on an issue of the day come back to bite me a few years down the line? Is it still safe¬†to sign an e-petition?

I tend to use different social networks for different purposes and adapt my postings accordingly. Facebook is for fun – catching up with friends, arranging meets and posting¬†¬†jokes. I’m still a bit careful about what I post on there, but it’s not exactly how I would like to present myself in the workplace either! I’ve already gone off it a bit with the latest revamp of the interface, but if¬†its content is destined to be forever engraved on my resum√© I might have to think about ditching it altogether.¬†A recent survey showed that 91% of employers are now screening candidates on the web, so think twice before you post about your nights out next time¬†– post something about how hard-working and enthusiastic you are instead.

Beeb fail

21 09 2011

Just found the beta version of the new BBC homepage. Not impressed. It’s still a big mess of content and is now full of horrible Javascript sliding windows in an attempt to fit even more onto the homepage! Pick a purpose and stick with it – that would be my advice. The new design seems to ape Sky’s website, with so much of the content pointing people towards watching TV programmes and “prime products” like Strictly Come Dancing given top billing to attract the most visitors.

Although the BBC is primarily a broadcaster of TV and radio, people have become used to the site as a source for news, sport, weather and advice. The new design seems determined to sideline these requirements and direct people towards their TV content – when you click on “lifestyle”, four out of the seven featured links take you directly to iplayer¬†content without an explicit warning that this will happen. If I’m on¬†a BBC main page I’m there to find something out or to read something, links to iplayer content have no chance of interesting me as I won’t have the time or the inclination to watch a half hour TV programme. Many people browse the BBC website as a part of their work, and links to blocked streaming content will only annoy them too.

Site navigation has been severely compromised by the multitude of options to explore content. Instead of the widely-recognised practice of using one or two¬†main menus, the beta site now provides visitors with five areas that could be described as content menus, not counting the various widgets for weather,¬†listings and popular content. This seems like a strange decision given the current feeling among content designers is to make design more minimal and cut down the homepage to a user’s top 10 tasks.

imagine¬†I’m on the BBC website looking for a scone recipe. I look at the main navigation along the top: news, weather, sport, iplayer, tv, radio…no joy there. I endure the sliding menu screen¬†but it offers me nothing. I click on lifestyle along the middle of the page and then on Great British Bakeoff¬†and it takes me straight to iplayer¬†to watch the programme. I’m starting to get annoyed now…assuming I’ve stayed on the page this long, I continue to scroll down and find the area I’m looking for along the bottom right-hand side of the page – the least visible section of any webpage! I click on food, expecting to find a simple gateway to their food section but again I’m disappointed – the food section has another horrendous Javascript¬†window design and it keeps trying to push me towards content I’m not interested in. I have to wade through the prominently-featured easy pasta recipes, newsletter, sausage casserole, roast chicken, editors’ picks, food blogs…then finally I see the recipe finder, again hidden below the fold of the page and on the right-hand side.

This example highlights the most important failing of the new design. People generally visit a website for a specific purpose. They want to accomplish this goal as quickly and easily as possible. What they don’t want is for the site to hinder their journey¬†by attempting to “hijack” their visit at every turn with flashy adverts, poor navigation and promoted content. I can’t see any rationale behind the BBC’s proposed redesign other than a wish to promote the TV channels and increase viewing figures. If this is true, then it’s a great shame; as I’ve pointed out before, the BBC has a great opportunity to provide us with a superb web service, but it seems unlikely to become reality in the near future.