In early spring we’ll be releasing the first part of our new website. This first public step brings together a lot of effort and coordination. I’d like to outline the activities and thinking that have got us this far and what to expect from a new website for Parliament.
Why build a new website
The mySociety review of Parliament’s online services outlined many of the weaknesses with the current website. Some of the issues were dated technologies, unresponsive design, information silos, poor search and constrained delivery teams. This all leads to an unsatisfactory service for Members, parliamentary staff and the public when trying to complete a task.
Subsequent reports at Parliament (such as the Digital Democracy Commission and others) have reinforced the mySociety findings. They also highlighted the challenges of public engagement.
The mySociety review not only identified the need to update the website, it led to the formation of PDS and the development of a new digital strategy.
The website problem in a picture
Parliament has many websites, which are the product of different teams and departments. This creates information silos with minimal links between related things. These information silos cause narrow pathways, poor signposting and frequent dead ends for users.
There are also issues with the website's content. We don't speak to users in an accessible way and often information is confusingly duplicated across the website. Creating a dedicated content team has been a direct response to this.
Over 50% of our users land on a specific page of parliament.uk via Google, not the homepage. For these people we’re providing a disservice by not offering the whole picture. For example, a politically disengaged member of the public might only have a rare and fleeting interaction with Parliament. If we aren't providing context, the opportunity for deeper public engagement is lost. If we can make the experience of parliament.uk simpler and more joined-up for our occasional users, specialist users and engaged citizens will benefit too.
What we’ve been doing
So, there are some hard-to-fix problems, but good progress is being made.
In 2016 a small multidisciplinary team was formed to explore what a new website for Parliament might look like. Discovery took place from January to March 2016. This involved an extensive UK-wide piece of user research, which was the backbone of the discovery phase for our new website.
The aim was to explore the needs of users and non-users of Parliament’s digital services. We then developed a series of prototypes to test their findings and to challenge their assumptions. During this 'discovery' phase their work embodied three of our digital strategy principles:
- start with user needs. The team included user researchers who studied our analytics, carried out interviews and ran prototype usability testing
- collaboration culture. The team ran lots of sessions with Parliamentary staff to clarify our web presence as well as inviting domain experts to be embedded within the team
- open. The team have been writing about their work while our developers code in the open
In late 2016 the team started to focus on the release of a beta version of a section of the website. The objective of a beta phase is to build a working version of the pages, based on our prototypes, test it with users and make improvements based on feedback.
We've followed much of the public sector best practice, outlined in the Government Digital Service (GDS) Service Manual. We’ve prioritised our work based on user needs, as well as creating a longer roadmap of development. We’ve worked closely with our data and search colleagues to make sure we’re working with up to date and well structured data. We’ve been developing our infrastructure to take advantage of all the benefits of public cloud services.
We’ve built our code delivery pipelines so that the teams can work iteratively, making changes to our code easily when needed. We’ve been developing a style guide and pattern library so that we can maintain an accessible and responsive design. This work shows a commitment to three more of our principles:
- focus on our core work. We’ve been guided by user needs and worked with real data
- continuous iteration. We’ve set up the tools and infrastructure for modern web development
- unity without uniformity. We’re being consistent whenever we build something new
What you can expect this spring
We're going to release a slice of information around Members which will include Member pages. We've created a unique page for every Member which will contain basic details along with their contact information. More features will be added to these pages as the data becomes available.
At the same time we're developing pages for constituencies, parties and the Parliamentary houses. We hope to make these available soon.
This initial work will not be as feature rich as the current website and so it won't be an immediate replacement. The new website pages will run in parallel under a separate ‘beta’ subdomain allowing us to test our new services, get feedback and iterate accordingly. This work won't replace the current website until more services and features have been delivered.
We'll continue to test and improve the beta pages over time. In addition, we'll be selecting our next areas of development from our evolving roadmap. Our roadmap is grouped into 3 broad areas:
- core Parliamentary business (that includes debates, legislation and committees)
- common activities or areas where we can add value (that's news, education and retail)
- general services (such as search and the homepage)
These areas have different characteristics that may need a different development approach. We’ll be sharing details of our roadmap shortly.
We’re also continuing to build our team and our skills. This first step is just the beginning of the process: the process of creating a culture of sustainable development at Parliament.
Interested in working at PDS? Take a look at our current vacancies.