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Exploring Topics

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories:, Start with user needs, User research

For those of you who have been reading our blog posts, you may have noticed me mentioning several times the importance of a topic/issue approach to Parliamentary information. Indeed, one of the key findings of our discovery phase of research with members of the public has shown that people care about issues/topics that matter to them.

Similarly, through a dozen interviews conducted with specialist users (i.e. journalists, lobbyists, MPs staff, etc.), we found that specialist users also often need to access Parliamentary information from a topic angle to track a specific issue, monitor activity around an issue.

It is also worth mentioning here that ‘Topics’ has been a recurrent subject of discussion in Parliament, with different group of stakeholders in the Commons and the Lords understanding the need to aggregate content by topic. And rightly so, we have started - and that’s only a start - to tackle Topics...
And when I say ‘Topics', I don’t really know whether it is a right term to use as we may mean ‘issue' or ‘subject' when using this term. Those terms may be interchangeable and this is something that we will have to explore further. One thing all participants agreed during workshops with colleagues in the Commons and the Lords that we ran in August is that we have to use terms that are understood and used broadly by the general public. Moreover, we have to be proactive in providing the information and reactive to emerging topical topics. Currently, we are very limited in aggregating our content around topics and in creating new topic terms. But we are working together with the Indexing and Data Management Service and the Data and Search teams to set best practice in tagging and indexing Parliamentary publications and other content.

Prototyping Topics

We took a very similar approach to the Members’ finder prototype. We ran workshops with stakeholders in the Commons and the Lords as mentioned above but also with engaged members of the public. During those, we found that:
  • it is important to keep a topic page simple (i.e. don’t overload with all types of content and publications unless necessary)
  • users are unlikely to look for information on a broad topic such as Education or Housing but would look for something more granular - i.e. grammar school or housing crisis.
  • we also found that the topicality of topics - what has been reported in the news for example - is a key aspect that needs prominence on a topic page.
Based on those findings, we started with a group sketching session
We acknowledged a number of assumptions and hypotheses before starting prototyping:
  • users need to know what has happened on the topic and what is going to happen next
  • users may want to engage with Parliament on the given topic
  • we will test how much we can get away with only using data (to test whether or not it is necessary to editorialise a topic page).
This time, Jack chose to prototype using Marvel app for a mobile first Topic page.
We chose to recruit members of the public who have an interest in an issue/topic as research participants as they would be a likely audience to be looking for information on the topic and likely user of such service (See Eric, our engaged member of the public). Based on previous research, we also know that specialist users need to access Parliamentary information on a topic base but we decided to focus on engaged members of the public for this prototype.

One of the main topics of interest mentioned at the workshops this summer was Housing so we chose to test a ‘Housing supply’ page with 4 engaged members of the public and 4 members of staff who work in public facing offices in the Commons and the Lords as they are extremely knowledgeable when it comes to understanding what citizens contact Parliament for.

What we found

  • We need to tell a story: what has happened on this topic? What is happening next? And what can I do about it?
  • Participants were asked to complete a number of tasks based on a scenario where an event had happened (Government announced measures in Parliament) and we found that temporality of the topics was central to the way we should present the information.
  • Although the language on the pages has been generally understood, some things are still confusing (i.e. what is an inquiry? What are votes and proceedings?)




  • We added a ‘My MP’ feature on the listing of MPs and Lords who have contributed on the topic. If you had already looked for your MP, it would automatically show you whether they have said anything on the topic or have an interest in it. Participants found this feature very useful.
  • We can do a lot with data. Overall, the content of the pages was understood but it also raised questions around curation of content - should ‘important’ events be emphasised on the page? how do we plan do that?
  • We need to think of different cases when the topic is no longer topical or how far back we display content from.

Jack then created a second iteration of the prototype in HTML to address some of the points above.



Topics will probably be one of our biggest challenges for a new website as it has the potential of aggregating Parliamentary information in a new engaging way but it also comes with its fair share of technical and editorial challenges that we will have to address.

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