GDS climbdown on ‘F#@! IE6’ stance

In a post on the (then) Alphagov blog in April last year about design principles:

Given it has 3.5% UK market share and Microsoft are trying to persuade everyone to shift off it, we assumed IE6 is dead (actually, we were a tad ruder than that).

The blog post was illustrated by a photograph showing design principles scribbled on cards, and stuck around the room (which was in the old COI headquarters of Hercules House). See that ‘IE6’ one disappearing off the top? There’s a very good reason why the photo is cropped precisely there. Clue: four letters, begins with F.

On the GDS blog today:

I think this is a well-intentioned mistake. Gov.uk is a clean slate, a rare opportunity to force people to upgrade, for their own good. GDS is a future-oriented operation, charged with leading a revolution in the delivery of public services. Oh – and cutting costs, too. Ask any web developer about the cost, in terms of both person hours and opportunity cost, of supporting IE6.

This effective endorsement of the continued use of an 11 year old browser is entirely contradictory to that mission. Sure, they’d take some flak for it. But it would be an opportunity to promote the message of ‘Government’s preferred online security advice channel’, GetSafeOnline, which states quite categorically: ‘Always ensure that you are running the latest version of your chosen browser.’

Dept of Health’s eulogy for WordPress

I feel somewhat obliged to highlight the latest blog post by Stephen Hale, head of digital at the Dept of Health. As regular readers will know, Stephen switched the department’s web publishing strategy over to WordPress just over a year ago, and he’s written subsequently about the joy of making such a move.

The countdown is now well and truly ‘on’ for government’s move to its new bespoke web platform: in less than a week, Directgov and BusinessLink will have been switched off. Government departments’ corporate sites will make the transition over the next few months: initially as ‘islands’, but reaching a critical mass ‘in around February’, according to the Inside Inside Government blog. A post on another Health blog quoted a completion date of April – and that certainly tallies with conversations I’ve had.

All of which leaves Stephen in reflective mood.

In DH, since we switched our main content management tool for dh.gov.uk to WordPress, we’ve expanded the range of people who can publish DH content. We’ve been able to do this because it’s now dead easy for people to do it. WordPress removes complexity for the editor – form relates to function pretty well.

As a result the digital team spend much less time publishing than we once did, and less time training and supporting editors. So we are able to focus more of our effort on ambitious uses of digital for health and care, and our policy engagement work.

– which is exactly the message I have been pushing around Whitehall for several years. How great to see it reflected back on a *.gov.uk website.

Stephen’s post closes:

I’m expecting [with] the publishing tools for the Inside Government bits of GOV.UK … our editors won’t need a manual and a training course to do their jobs. From what I’ve seen, it’s looking good.

Is it just me, or is that a veiled threat? 🙂

On logging in via Facebook

Reported by the Telegraph today:

Those applying via computer or mobile phone for services ranging from tax credits, fishing licences and passports will be asked to choose from a list of familiar log-ins to prove their identity… Under the proposals, members of the public will be able to use log-ins from “trusted” organisations, chosen to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, to access Government services grouped together on a single website called Gov.uk… A user logging onto the site by phone would be asked to choose to select from a logo from one of the trusted brands, such as Facebook.

Two days ago, on the blog of email newsletter service MailChimp:

[We were convinced] that adding social login buttons to our app were essential to improving our depressing failure rate… I was shocked to see that just 3.4% of the people that visited the login page actually used Facebook or Twitter to log in.

Even a 3.4% drop in failures is worth having them there, right? Maybe not… Do you want to have your users’ login credentials stored in a third-party service? Do you want your brand closely associated with other brands, over which you have no control? Do you want to add additional confusion about login methods on your app? Is it worth it? Nope, it’s not to us.

Of course, the MailChimp position is slightly undermined by the use, immediately below this very blog post, of ‘Sign in with Facebook’ and ‘Sign in with Twitter’ buttons on their comment form. They argue in the comment thread that commenting is a very different user scenario; and it’s a view I have some sympathy with.

GovUK calls off the search

The date for transition from Directgov to GovUK is fast approaching, and we now have a sight of the homepage which will greet visitors on opening day. And as GDS head of design Ben Terrett acknowledges, ‘it’s significantly different from any of the other homepages we’ve released so far’.

Back in April last year, when a small group of people were starting to think about an alpha for GOV.UK, the expression “Google is the homepage” was coined… People often misunderstood this to mean we thought the homepage should look like Google. We compounded this problem by making the homepage look like Google.

A brief review of previous iterations shows just how deeply that thinking went. Note in particular the one with a Google Maps aerial photo being used as a zero-effort equivalent of Google’s ‘doodles’.

This isn’t the only instance of ‘inspiration → implementation’ in the GovUK design, by the way. When Ben was appointed, he wrote on the GDS blog:

In many ways the problem is similar to problem [Jock] Kinnear [sic] and [Margaret] Calvert faced when designing the road signs in the 60′s. Kinnear and Calvert proposed one consistent system. One designed with the clarity of information as it’s [sic] goal. From then on Britain had a solution that became the definitive standard and was copied around the world… Sound familiar? Swap signage systems for websites. Swap vehicle traffic for online traffic. That’s a challenge no designer could resist.

Six months later, which typeface did they choose as the new design’s base? (New) Transport, Margaret Calvert’s digital-friendly update of said 1960s road sign work. Well, I suppose that’s one way to meet said challenge. But I digress.

Instead of trying to emulate Google, they’ve switched to more of a signposting strategy – which looks more like (very) old-school Yahoo. (Or indeed, Directgov.) A bold decision, which almost feels like a backward step… but a decision based on evidence. It all leads to a fascinating conclusion, which Ben describes as follows.

The people who visit the homepage do so because they are lost. They’re not on the right page, and they’re not comfortable using search, so they go to the homepage to try and help them find what they’re looking for.

Or, if I might dare to paraphrase, your own on-site search isn’t worth worrying too much about. If they’re going to be comfortable doing with the concept of searching, they’ll almost certainly have come to you from Google (65% of traffic) anyway. (All the more reason, I’d say, for using Google Custom Search or the paid-for Site Search.)

The move also coincides with the removal of one of my favourite features of previous iterations: search suggestions as you type. When done well, it’s an invaluable navigation tool in itself: and in fact, I’m now finding myself expecting to be offered search suggestions, when I start typing into the Search box of any large-scale site.

But it may not be gone for good:

I look forward to reading that forthcoming blog post. (Update: now published.)

Should we have another WordUp Whitehall?

Over the last couple of months, numerous people have got in touch to ask if there’s going to be another WordUp Whitehall this year. And although I didn’t initially think it was a good idea, I think I’ve been persuaded.

For the past two years, I’ve organised WordUp Whitehall as a kind of ‘WordCamp’ for civil servants who are already using WordPress (or are seriously considering it), and the developers/agencies they’re working with. It’s mostly a series of ‘show and tell’ sessions, aimed at sharing experiences, stimulating ideas and spreading good practice. I also try to persuade a special guest or two to come along.

Recognising that it’s a workday event, and that departments have been generous enough to offer conference facilities at no charge, we’ve enforced fairly strict rules of engagement. UK central government only, with limited numbers from each department. Outsiders by invitation only. Guaranteed confidentiality where requested. And no sales pitches. They’ve been beautifully observed, for which I’ve been most grateful.

Both previous years, we’ve had about 50 places… and both times, we’ve ‘sold out’ within 24 hours. Various senior and influential people have gone on to explicitly credit the events with helping them rethink or rewrite their digital strategies, leading in many cases to major new projects being done on WordPress. (It’s also been, ahem, flattering to see other countries and CMS communities subsequently starting to run very similar events.)

But I wasn’t sure about doing it again this year. Previously, we’ve had a handful of obvious flagship projects for people to come along and present: Health, Transport, No10, GCN, etc. But the past year or more has been dominated by the development of GOVUK, and its imminent consumption of all departmental sites. We simply haven’t had any ‘big bang’ WordPress launches post-GDS. And that made me wonder if we had enough to talk about.

I’ve subsequently been persuaded that there’s definitely an appetite for another event… but perhaps a slightly different one.

We’ve already been offered a much larger venue than in previous years: so it’s probably the perfect time to extend the event beyond Whitehall – local government, arms-length bodies, perhaps friends overseas.

And if we’re short of ‘flagship’ projects to present, maybe it’s time for a slightly different agenda. Perhaps a greater number of shorter presentations, focusing on specific (little) things we’ve all done. I’m not sure the beautiful chaos of a multi-track, self-organising BarCamp / GovCamp style event is quite right, but perhaps it does.

Some things won’t change, though. It’ll still be free to attend. It’ll still take place in mid to late Autumn. Most of the ‘rules of engagement’ will still apply. And yes, there will be donuts.

So… it’s over to you lot.

I’d love to hear what you, the potential attendees, think.

  • What level of interest is there beyond Whitehall?
  • Are there any ‘flagship’ projects I’ve missed somehow? Perhaps beyond Whitehall?
  • Does everyone have a ‘little thing’ they could present?
  • Do we prefer structured or chaotic?

Please leave a comment below, and let’s see where the consensus lies.

That’s the way the cookie rules crumble

New EU rules relating to the use of cookies on websites came into effect in May 2011, but the UK Information Commissioner gave everyone a year to work towards compliance. In practice, of course, that meant everyone ignored it for 51 weeks, then panicked.

Along with much of the European web industry, I spent last week fielding calls from clients, asking whether their site was compliant with the rules – or perhaps more accurately, whether they were facing a £500,000 fine, like they’d heard on the news.

As ever with these things, it boiled down to choosing a role model, and copying what they were doing. The Government Digital Service and DCMS (as lead department) were both taking an ‘implied consent’ approach, with pages listing and justifying the use of each individual cookie; and the BBC, initially, were doing likewise. That was good enough for most people.

(Late in the week, the BBC actually changed tack, and introduced a new ‘explicit consent’ approach. Thankfully, most of my contacts had bought into ‘implicit consent’ by then.)

And then, outrageously late in the day – a scorching hot leave-work-early Friday at that, the ICO cracked.

Posting on their corporate blog, Dave Evans announced that their guidance had been updated to ‘clarify’ that implicit consent was a valid form of consent, as long as you were ‘satisfied that users understand that their actions will result in cookies being set.’ In other words, implicit consent with appropriate information was absolutely fine.

It was the only sensible outcome. Constant popups or warning banners would have killed the concept of cookies, which are used – in the vast majority of cases – to make things easier for users. It would have undermined most websites’ traffic analysis. And besides, with third-party services from sharing to embedding now common on every web page, I’m not convinced any technology could have successfully blocked every attempt to drop cookies anyway.

It hasn’t been an unhelpful exercise. I broadly agree with the principle of cutting down on ‘unnecessary’ cookies, and in this past week, as a result of the fuss, we’ve made changes in how we do certain things. (Blog post to follow.) If it has made online giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook think again, and be more transparent about their use of cookies (and other tracking technologies), then that too is a good thing.

Common sense would seem to have prevailed. Hurrah. But I’m sure a lot of people are less than happy at the ICO’s handling of this.

Code For The People presents: HMG’s Olympic & Paralympic media centre

The run-up to the Olympic Games starts in earnest today, with the arrival of the flame on British shores – and Whitehall is opening up its dedicated Government Olympic Communication operation, providing ‘a single point of contact for London 2012-related media enquiries … until the end of the Paralympic Games on 9 September.’ There’s a dedicated press team, drawn from across Government – and a dedicated website, which I’m genuinely proud to say we built.

DCMS asked us for a site which could draw together the many streams of information – text, photo and audio – already being produced in government, and make them easy for journalists to explore. Many departments were issuing press briefings, or posting fantastic material on Flickr or YouTube, but there was no easy way to browse through it, or conduct targeted searches.

Cue some WordPress-powered magic. 🙂

A trained eye will spot our heavy use of custom post types. Some, like ‘backgrounder’ were fairly straightforward, identical to posts or pages, but separated out for convenience. Others, like ‘theme’ and ‘region’ were more complex – and were also sync’ed up to custom taxonomies, allowing us to ‘tag’ other post types as being relevant to a given theme/region. We then interfere with WordPress’s default selection of display templates, to show collated results pages: editorial on one side, search results on the other.

Here’s an example: a ‘theme’ page, showing relevant results from the other post types.

There are specific custom post types for photos – specifically Flickr; and videos – specifically YouTube. (Why these two? Because pretty much every department is already using them.) And in both cases, we’ve written custom code to interface directly with the host sites’ APIs, making the process of adding new material a breeze.

Let’s take YouTube, for example. Editors simply click ‘Add New’, then paste the URL of a YouTube clip’s page into a clearly labelled box. We extract the clip’s unique ID, then query the YouTube API to get its thumbnail, which we save as the WP post’s featured image; and the YouTube-recommended embed code. Couldn’t be easier.

Then, when you view the clip’s page on the site, the video gets embedded automatically – and we display the YouTube embed code, for journalists or bloggers to take away to their own sites.

We let the journalists and bloggers customise the embed’s dimensions via an ajax call back to YouTube; so if you need a clip to be a certain size, we’ll recalculate the width and height accordingly. We store your preference using a cookie – meaning that now, every time you look at a video page, the embed code is pre-customised for you. 🙂

Then there’s the multi-dimensional search function. Each post type has a number of taxonomies associated with it: theme, region, originating department, and so on. So when you’re browsing, say, the photo archives, you can specify that you want photos on a given theme… or from a given region… or by a given department… or in a given month. Individually, or in combination.

It’s the first time we’ve tackled this kind of ‘advanced searching’ functionality, and it probably doesn’t sound all that complicated: but I can assure you, it is. 🙂

It’s also the first time we’ve delivered a responsive design on a client site. We originally planned three versions: phone, tablet and desktop. But a late change of code base, and (to be honest) questions over its real value, led us to drop the tablet view. For the most part, it’s just been a case of un-floating the various blocks in the layout grid – but a few elements, like the primary navigation and homepage carousel, needed a bit more work. Give it a try if you’ve got a smartphone handy; or resize your (non-IE) browser to a really narrow size. It should kick in at 480px width.

Behind the scenes, working with our very good friends at CatN Hosting, we’ve added a Varnish cache – just in case there’s a sudden huge leap in traffic. Hopefully it won’t ever be required. But for the same reason they’re putting missiles on top of east London tower blocks, we’re planning for a worst-case scenario.

My thanks to Nick at DCMS/GOC for commissioning us, and protecting us from the internal wrangling. To Joe at CatN, for leaping into action when called upon, and for very kindly volunteering to help with Varnish. And to the G-Cloud process, directly and indirectly, for its help in buying Joe’s services. To the other clients who, knowingly or not, contributed ideas and code to the site’s development. But most of all, to designer Laura Kalbag, who developed the visuals and did the bulk of the front-end functionality. You’re all wonderful.

Let the Games begin.

This has been a Code For The People production.

BuddyPress powers new Civil Service community site

There’s a new website in the civilservice.gov.uk domain – but because it’s at a subdomain, of course, it doesn’t count as a ‘new’ site. (That’s an observation, not a criticism; I’m as guilty of doing this as anyone.)

Created by DWP ‘in their role as leaders of Govt agile adoption on the ICT Strategy CIO Delivery Board’, it’s a community site which sets out to provide a space for ‘people in the public and private sectors to discuss, share and get advice and answers on adopting agile in UK Government projects’. As such, it ticks a box from the ICT Strategy Implementation Plan.

Naturally I’m delighted to see they’ve built it using BuddyPress. It looks like a fairly ‘vanilla’ installation for the moment, running using the free BuddyPress Corporate theme, with minimal customisation. I’ve also spotted the Q&A premium plugin in there too. The IP address reveals it’s the handiwork of Harry Metcalfe’s DXW crew.

They’re doing the right thing by just charging headlong into it; it seems like all the Facebook-esque functionality – personal profiles, groups, forums (?), friending, etc – has been enabled. Some of it will work, some won’t. But since it’s all in there already, you may as well give it a try.

I’d also endorse the decision to work with a ready-made theme: I recently looked into developing a BuddyPress theme from scratch, and soon gave up on the idea. It’s terrifying. If you really want to customise the look & feel, do it as a Child Theme.

The fate of any BuddyPress is dictated by the momentum it builds (or fails to build). The site, or more accurately its membership, needs to provide good enough reason for people to come back regularly, and contribute while they’re there. I wish them well.

We’ve got a BuddyPress-based government project of our own in the works; the development work is close to completion, but we’re facing a few bureaucratic hurdles. I’m hoping for progress in the next couple of weeks; naturally, I’ll blog about it in due course.

New logos for all government departments

Consistency of government departments’ visual identity has been on the cards for quite some time. In such austere times it’s increasingly indefensible not to; it’s how the citizen sees it anyway; and there’s evidence, from home and abroad, that it can be beneficial. I blogged back in 2010 that, with a new government taking power, it was an idea whose time had come; and the Single Government Domain project was always likely to be the trigger.

A couple of months back, I received a tipoff that the new logo style had been agreed; and that departments were starting to factor it into future comms plans – but I didn’t want to blog about it until the details were made public. Looking through the GDS Github account this morning, I came across a publicly accessible PDF file entitled ‘HMG Identity System’, carrying Cabinet Office branding, dated January 2012, and uploaded in the last fortnight. It confirms the tipoffs I had received.

If you’ve been following the evolution of the gov.uk project, it won’t come as much surprise to learn that each department gets a single identifying colour. (Health get two – one of which is NHS Blue.)  For the most part, the colours will be broadly familiar from existing departmental palettes: Education’s orange is the most striking exception. Departments’ sub-agencies will also fall into the same system, and will inherit the colour of their parent department.

All logos are to be dropped in favour of a digital-friendly Royal Coat of Arms, except for those departments whose current identities use a particular ‘heraldic badge or crest’ – the Home Office and MoD are noted specifically, but I assume the Wales and Scotland Offices would be covered by this too. (NIO’s use of a crest seems somewhat half-hearted, so I guess they’ll use the common one.)

There will also be ‘auxiliary icons’ for use in certain circumstances: the crown as seen already atop gov.uk, and a somewhat unpleasantly squared-off Union Jack.

The document says it can be used in either portrait or landscape orientation, but there’s no indication of how it will handle extra-long names such as Defra’s.

It’s very simple, surprisingly so in fact. The choice of typeface – Helvetica Neue, I assume? – doesn’t immediately say British, in the way that Gill Sans might have done. It’ll be very easy to forge; and, I fear, very easy for arms-length bodies to get wrong. But purely subjectively, I do quite like it.

Update, 11 May:

The ‘new look’ is in fact already ‘out there’, if you know where to look. I’ve had it confirmed by the Dept for Education that they’ve been using it on their website since ‘the start of April’, making them the first dept to do so. However, implementation is patchy: the ‘old’ DfE identity is still in evidence: I’m seeing an old logo as their website’s favicon; on their Facebook page; and despite their claims to have changed it, as their Twitter icon and profile background.

There’s also photographic evidence of the new style in use by the Teaching Agency, a DfE executive agency.

I haven’t yet found evidence of any other departments using it yet. If you have, do please leave a comment.

A bit of extra background for anyone who’s interested:

  • The Dutch government rebranded all ministries with a consistent (royal crest) logo and typeface in late 2007. The work was led by design agency Studio Dumbar. (Warning: Flash heavy.)
  • Canada and Germany have had consistent departmental identities for ages. France adopted a common logo (Marianne) in 1999, but its application is somewhat variable.
  • The introduction of a consistent NHS identity was exemplary: 95% of people now recognise it spontaneously. This website explains what they did, and why.
  • The departments of the Northern Ireland Executive share a common visual identity (hexagon-based logo and typeface): but the website about it seems to have been rationalised. The Scottish government doesn’t appear to have any kind of identity for its Directorates… which I guess is consistency of another kind.