Belated introduction and defining my role

We recently soft-launched this team blog and we all got a bit caught up in the need to start writing what we deemed to be worthwhile articles, just as a starter. However, perhaps our first entries should have been more a bit more introductory and explaining what our roles are in the team.

The first part is easy to accomplish! My name is Sam and I am one of the Senior Web and Digital Communications Officers for Devon County Council. I’ve been with DCC since April 1999 when I was offered the job of Web Assistant in the then Education, Arts and Libraries Directorate. At this point I was but 19 years old and the sum total of my experience in web design or HTML was building a General Election website as a project at Exeter College and building a website for Newton St Cyres Young Farmers Club.

Continue reading my extended introduction (only if you want to!)

My first duties were to help publish information to the DCC website on behalf of the EAL services. This most often took the form of things like exam results and education statistics as web pages (this was pre-ubiquitous PDFing of documents!) as well as what I thought of as larger projects, such as a Devon Museums catalogue site and the Devon Schools 2000 project (Way Back Machine doesn’t go back far enough for that one!)

Within a couple of years we picked up an extra Web Assistant as things were getting busy. There was an eGovernment target to get all schools online with at least a basic website by 2003 and so we were used to help get schools online. At the time there were 360+ schools in Devon and at least 50% had no website at all. Developing school websites became a large part of our job, alongside the ongoing need to publish information for the directorate itself.

Over the next few years our service grew… we started off with a university placement for a year and that evolved into a full time position, which is where Tim came into the team. From 2001 to 2011 the team designed and built approximately 400 individual websites, both for schools and the Council. It was only in around 2009 when we started making use of WordPress and not until 2010 that we were building full sites with it.

In the summer of 2011 we were informed that our team would be merged with our corporate web team and become the Web and Digital Communications team. One of my old team decided to leave at this point to pursue his own freelance career and so the decision was then made to end the school website service (which had grown far too cumbersome for a team of our size to keep up with, even without the loss of a key member of staff).

The school service effectively ended on 1 September 2011… which leads me into the second question: What is my new role?

At first it was much the same as it had always been. Tim and I were still in our old office, Matt was still with ACS in effect, Russ and Patrick were still with the Comms team and Carl was still in the roof with ICT. There were still school contracts to fulfil, despite the end of the service, so this filled up a sizeable proportion of our time in the latter stages of 2011.

However, just before Christmas we were moving into a new office as one whole, cohesive team. This was what we all consider to be the real start of our journey together. We very quickly got our teeth into some big projects. There was the Devon News Centre, the Leadership Team Blogs (sorry, it’s on the intranet!), the public site content review, the Devon homepage, our Global Experience Language to develop, conceptual work on responsive design, the EU Cookie legislation to deal with and, despite the need to reduce our microsites, many microsites to develop! This was just the first six months.

In that time, we have been asked to consider what we believe our roles to be. For some it was quite clear I think. However, I initially had to think what my role would evolve into. I was no longer solely responsible for design. We have a design team tasked with doing graphics work, so apart from the Devon homepage I would be relinquishing most of that part of my role. We no longer have schools to worry about, at least for the most part. Patrick handles the public website content, Russ handles the social media and comms team liaison duties… where is my place?

It came to me mostly while working on a layout for the Travel Devon website (work in progress). The initial draft of what they wanted was an absolute mess. They had created a rough plan of what they wanted in Powerpoint, chucking in just about everything they could think of that would ever be any use to anybody.

Travel Devon proposal

In order to make this work, I knew I had to strip it all down to its basic components and think about how this page would work as a user. The design team had already created graphics for the project, so I was able to use what they had created and form up a simplified template based on the layout they handed me.

Travel Devon draft

In creating this revised layout I had stripped it back to the bare basics. Rather than trying to make the homepage a toolkit for everyone, I thought it should feature the elements that will be most in use and filter the rest to the audience specific pages (Walking, Cycling, Road, Public Transport). On the sidebar would be the collapsible ‘tasks’ they wanted, such as searching for train times or searching for a car share.

This, along with the redesigned homepage, was really my first step in becoming the User Experience and Digital Services Designer (my new unofficial job title after my recent appraisal!). Now I have to actually find out precisely what I need to be doing rather than flying by the seat of my pants.

User Experience (UX) has been a phrase in relatively common web parlance for a couple of years now, but it’s the first time I have had to apply it specifically to my own role. So I set out to find out what the common definition for UX really is. The first thing I found was a visual metaphor comparing User Experience with User Interface.

The graphic may appear flippant, but it does rather nicely sum up what I always thought of as User Experience. It is the sum of all the parts that make up a website or web journey for a user.

User Experience infographicSource:

The graphic above is a more accurate way of looking at User Experience. These are all the facets that are, or should be, considered when approaching the delivery of content to the web. It sounds obvious when you look at it and perhaps we have been doing this without thinking about it before, at least to some degree. However, those of you working in local government will already see at least a couple of issues that crop up regularly in public sector content. That three red circles: Valuable, Desirable and Credible.

This ties in nicely with Patrick’s work on attempting to make sense of our public site content. How much of it is valuable? Do people actually want this information? If they do, can they even find it?

The Government Digital Service have made great strides in unpicking the faults of DirectGov and applying a much more sensible UX approach on They have stripped out all the unnecessary (or valueless) information, rewritten it where necessary and presented it in a much more digestible format. Looking at the graphic above, they have encompassed all six of those key areas in that one massive piece of work. We can learn an awful lot from them… and we did when we visited the GDS back in April.

During my brief research so far I’ve quickly come to the conclusion that what I have unwittingly signed myself up for is one heck of a job. User Experience in the olden days used to be how it looked more than how it read. Quite often managers would come to me and want to see a design before they give me the content, whereas we really need the content to be right first before we can then layer on the nice looking graphics.

In a slightly accidental way I kind of managed that with Travel Devon and the Sustainable Transport team were receptive to our ideas. My next challenge is to make sure that this kind of thinking is replicated throughout every project we are involved in, whether it be another small microsite with a short lifespan or the entirety of our public website.

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