Simon Dickson has been blogging about online government, politics and WordPress since 2005. Some important people read it.

 
 
Thursday 11 October 2012

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.'

Thursday 11 October 2012

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? :)

Thursday 4 October 2012

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.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

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.)

Friday 28 September 2012

Syndicated sidebars

Rumours of the demise of RSS seem to come in waves. We're in the midst of another one just now, with moves by Twitter and Google (in the form of Feedburner) seemingly calling its future into question.

Before I began to bore everyone with the wonders of WordPress, I used to bore people with the wonders of RSS. In fact, it was WordPress's handling of RSS feeds which initially won my heart. Feeds are now so ingrained in my daily life, I don't even think about it any more. But the reality is, RSS reading (per se) didn't catch on.

That isn't so say that it's a dead technology though, far from it. Five years ago, I suggested Facebook 'might actually be the app which brings RSS to the masses'. Not too far off, as it turned out. I wonder how many people receive Facebook updates, or automated tweets, or email newsletters, which are really just renderings of an RSS feed?

And so to a little project I've been working on, in conjunction with leading Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack.

Mark wanted to recreate an application he used to manage whilst a full-time party employee: a javascript 'widget' to display political campaign buttons on other people's web pages. A simple 'ad server', if you will. Nothing too clever technically, but a nice idea well implemented. Sadly though, since Mark had moved on, it had 'fallen out of favour'.

Its successor is the new Lib Dem Widget, a curated collection of current political content and links, which - like its predecessor - can be added to any website with a single line of code.

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://libdemwidget.markpack.org.uk/"></script>

We pull in details of the latest party news item, the latest YouTube video, plus a collection of other interesting bits from around the web, and render it in a nicely style-guide-compliant 'skyscraper', which should drop seamlessly into any website sidebar. And yes, of course, it's (mostly) driven by RSS feeds.

You won't be surprised to learn we built it with WordPress: but it's a rather unusual use case. The widget runs as a theme, giving us easy access to:

  • WP's built-in feed-fetching;
  • its various caching options - including, but not limited to WP Super Cache; and
  • its oEmbed calls, for easy inclusion of the YouTube clip.

In effect, it's the 'homepage' of a one-page site... but a site with no actual content of its own.

To give things a visual lift, we also 'code scrape' the various linked pages, looking for details of thumbnail images. Facebook's OpenGraph meta tags are now in fairly widespread use, so there's a healthy chance that we'll see an og:image in the HTML header - and if so, we'll use that.

Writing code which will work on any website - regardless of sidebar width, existing CSS styles etc - has been quite a challenge. The markup ends up pretty ugly, with everything included 'inline', just to be sure. And even then, I'm not sure we've sorted out every possible use case... but that's what beta testing is there for.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Directgov’s days are numbered

We knew it was coming, but here's definitive public confirmation: Directgov will hand over to GOV.UK on 17 October.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

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.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Two projects make State Of The Word

Saturday saw the annual State Of The Word address by WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, as part of WordCamp San Francisco. Worth taking an hour out to watch it, if you've got any interest in the WordPress project.

And I'm delighted to note that not one, but two Code For The People projects got a mention during the talk: our work for the Rolling Stones, and Oxford University's Free Speech Debate (although the latter was a bit blink-and-you'll-miss-it). We'd have been delighted to see one project among Matt's hand-picked highlights of the year; having two is a bit of a shock.

The other important point to note is that WordPress 3.5 will be released on 5 December ('I 100% believe it's gonna happen'), even if it means dropping certain features. We're already starting to see signs of what's in store, including the Twenty Twelve theme, and changes to Media uploading.

Thursday 2 August 2012

Code For The People among only nine agencies with WordPress VIP accreditation

Big news today, if you're into this sort of thing: Automattic have just announced an extension of their WordPress.com VIP Featured Partner program(me). It used to be only for other technology platforms; but they've now opened it to interactive agencies.

There are only nine in the initial group of agencies vetted 'to ensure the agency's capabilities fit the needs and scale of VIP customers'. And we're among them.

It's an elite bunch we find ourselves in: exclusively English-speaking, majority US-based, with a smattering of famous names (well, in certain circles). To be quite honest, we've no idea where it might lead. But with a client list like ours, we feel we're already playing in that VIP league already, and we're excited at the possibilities coming from wider exposure.

To mark the occasion, we've (finally!) got a Code For The People website up - and we're really quite proud of it. It's in the 'one page' style - partly because we didn't have time to write loads of editorial, but also because you don't have time to read it either.

Although the content is hardcoded, it's been built as a barebones WordPress theme, giving us easy access to extra functionality - there's an embedded contact form, for example, and an embedded version of Simon's Twitter Tracker widget. I'm sure we'll migrate more stuff into it over time. But then again, I bet we've all said that, and then... well, you know.

It's been a(nother) fantastic piece of work by Laura Kalbag, who led on the visuals, and took charge of the coding duties in the latter stages. Thanks, Laura.

Friday 13 July 2012

Mick, Keef, Charlie, Ronnie – and us. Oh, and the Greatest 404 Page Of All Time.

I'm now into my 18th year earning a living building and running websites. I've been lucky enough to work for and with some household names. But never could I have imagined that I'd end up working for The Rolling Stones. And yet, for the past few months, that's precisely what I've been doing. I'm still not sure it's actually sunk in yet.

I'm not going to waste time explaining why it's been an exciting project to work on. It's The Rolling Stones, for dear's sake. But one note I will add, for younger viewers, is that the Stones were one of the first 'real world' entities to have a website: here's the Wayback Machine's copy from 1996. A year earlier, they'd even live-streamed a concert (to an audience, one assumes, of literally dozens) - it was the very moment I decided there was probably a future in this stuff.

Simon and I were brought on board by designer James Stiff, who had worked with the Stones' team last year, on spinoff site StonesArchive.com. Their existing site was black, and rather funereal. It read like a museum exhibit. It hadn't kept pace with the development of social networking, or online music sales. And it was running on Drupal. They wanted a 'total overhaul', to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the band's first concert (here's the setlist), and the opening of an exhibition at Somerset House. Of course we said 'yes'.

Behind the scenes, it's the now customary mix of WordPress custom post types and taxonomies. We're running separate post types for people, songs, albums (etc), videos, and photo galleries. Albums and people also exist as taxonomies, allowing us - for example - to show full credits and track listings for each album, including audio previews.

The entire site is underpinned by the iTunes API. Our starting point was a big data scrape, pulling down details of the 400-ish separate songs in the Stones back catalogue, which we then associated with the relevant albums (plural, in may cases). Of course, in doing this, we couldn't have picked a harder back catalogue to work with: so many compilations, live albums, and so on. So we've also included an indication of the 'canonical' version: in other words, the album most normally or naturally associated with a given track. This gives us something sensible to offer in search results... and powers a feature we didn't quite have ready for launch, but which is truly awesome.

iTunes is also the source of the 30 second audio clips, delivered in m4a format. Great in Chrome and Safari, Android and iOS, even IE: all of whom can play it natively using HTML5's <audio>. But not Firefox or Opera. So we're having to include a Flash-based fallback, using the jQuery-based jplayer. Hang on, wasn't HTML5 meant to spell the end of cross-browser chaos?

There's plenty more I could waffle on about here: the all-widget homepage, our use of WPEngine or Twitter Bootstrap (thanks to both!)... but it's clear there's one feature which has excited people more than most. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the error page they're calling 'Probably the Greatest 404 Page Not Found Error of All Time'. (And that's a guy called Jesus saying that, so...)

It's not unusual for a relaunched website to see a lot of people hitting its '404 not found' page, as people click on now-invalid links or bookmarks. But we're seeing people deliberately trying to hit it, in vast numbers. It's getting its own articles on sites like Gizmodo and Mashable. I'm half-expecting to see it trending on Twitter by the end of the day. People are sending me vast numbers of suggestions of musical 404 pages for other Rock Legends. It's all just a little bit nuts.

https://twitter.com/simond/status/223808033535442945

What's more exciting for me, personally, is the way we (by which I really mean Simon W) approached the site development. The functionality, wherever possible, has been written for easy reuse. So the next time a legendary rock act with an extensive back catalogue comes calling, we'll be able to get them to a working prototype in double-quick time.

Our thanks go to all those who made it possible: EC, the guys at WPEngine, the Twitter Bootstrap crew, the WordPress community... and Bruce Springsteen, whose website - relaunched on WordPress earlier this year - was a source of inspiration.

But in particular, thanks to James Stiff for bringing us on board in the first place, providing us with some gorgeous visuals to work with, coming up with the 404 idea, and from my own selfish perspective, supplying everything in perfectly web-ready form.

PS If anyone happens to see David Bowie, tell him I said 'hi'. ;)

This has been a Code For The People production, on behalf of the Greatest Rock N Roll Band In The World.