1. What is Usability?

    If you want your site to be successful, how usable it is is much more important than what features it has. By that I don’t mean that usability is important, and is something you really need to consider and spend time on. No, I mean it’s completely vital — it should be where the vast majority of your work goes.

    There are many different ways of thinking about what usability actually means, but for now we’re going to take one very simple approach: it’s a measure of how easy it is for someone to use your site who isn’t already a domain expert. If you’re building a Freedom of Information site, can someone who has never even heard of Freedom of Information clearly and easily do what you want? If you’re tracking Members of Parliament, what does your site look like to someone who actively hates politics, and knows nothing at all about the Parliamentary system, or what bills are, or hasn’t even the faintest clue what MPs actually spend their time doing? For every page you build, you need to step back, look at it like a first-time visitor, and ask: does this explain what the page is about, why I’m here, what I’m meant to do now, how I can find out more, etc., or does it assume I’m already an expert?

    In the vast majority of cases, the primary reason you are building the site in the first place is because the official sites already act like everyone is an expert, and NGO sites assume everyone wants to become an expert. Your goal is to build a site that non-experts can use.

    This is far from easy. The chances are you’re already an expert yourself — and if you’re not, then you’ll probably become one in the process of building the site. And once you’re an expert, everything makes sense to you. It’s hard to go back and pretend like everything is foreign to you again.

    But it’s OK for this stuff to be hard. Even if you go to the gym every day you’re not going to see much effect if you only spend 5 minutes there doing things that are easy. Usability design is the same: what every page of your site does; how every element of it hangs together; what the things are that someone can do next — these are tough questions. If each of these decisions is easy to make, you’re almost certainly going to have no effect. You’ve simply built a site that’s good for you, but bad for your users.

    There are many approaches you can take to do this sort of thing better, and we’ll be talking about lots of them here. But finding out how well you’ve actually done it is remarkably easy. Simply get three people who haven’t used your site before, and who aren’t experts in your area, and persuade them to spend five minutes using your site while you watch. Don’t tell them anything about the site in advance — especially not what the site does (it’s really easy to make that mistake whilst trying to persuade them to help you!) Just ask if they’ll spend a few minutes with this new website you’re working on, and talk out loud about what they’re doing (or trying to do) as they go. You can’t answer any questions they ask — in fact you can’t say a single thing. All you can do is listen, and watch.

    If paying attention to how each of those people interacts with your site doesn’t give you thousands of dollars worth of advice you’re either already one of the best usability designers in the world, or you’re doing it wrong.


  2. I used FixMyTransport – now what?

    Transit Distress by Eric Parker - used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence

    FixMyTransport was launched a month ago. It is now well on its way to listing 1,000 individual complaints, suggestions and requests to the public transport operators of Great Britain.

    As the sample size grows, we’re able to see just what provokes the country’s mild-mannered passengers into action. There are the diurnal irritations – the leaky station roof, constant announcements, smelly trains; there is the discomfort of overcrowding and overheated buses.

    All of which are important, of course. And in this, FixMyTransport is achieving its aim of allowing people to make their reports to the operators, while at the same time creating small bunches of people who read those reports and think, ‘Hey, me too!’.

    But FixMyTransport is not just for the little gripes. It’s uncovering some pretty big issues, too. Prime among these is the issue of accessibility: reports have come in of buses driving away rather than let a wheelchair user on; a disabled passenger who has surmised that it’s easier to invite friends to come to him rather than try to navigate London’s public transport system; a station from which those with restricted mobility can only travel in one direction.

    What next?

    The big question for us is, what happens now? Are these reports making anything better? In some cases, yes.

    There is the train that will now stop at intermediate stations, and the pedestrian crossings that are no longer blocked by buses. Little things that’ll make a big difference to the people who reported them. But the pay-off is not always so immediate. Bigger issues are obviously not going to be fixed overnight. And some problems won’t be fixed, for a multitude of reasons – they don’t fit in with the operators’ plans, or they’re not budgeted for, or they just aren’t seen as sufficiently important.

    How is FixMyTransport going to crack those? Well, it was set up so that you can show your operator that there is demand, that budgets need to be massaged, or that plans should change. If you’ve used the site, you may well have been on the receiving end of a comment from one of the team, nudging you to spread the word of your campaign, among friends, family, and fellow-passengers.

    The fact that people can sign up to your page helps make FixMyTransport different from just contacting the operator directly. We also reckon it’ll make a difference when it comes to getting changes. Consider, for example, the campaign to get increased cycle parking at Cambridge station – with 176 supporters (and still growing every day), our biggest yet. It’s been picked up by local press, talked about on Twitter – and eventually, National Express won’t be able to ignore the public demonstration of a palpable need.

    Well, that’s the plan. We know it’s early days, and that FixMyTransport represents a massive sea change for some operators who are not used to interacting openly and online.

    If you’ve written an impassioned, well-reasoned request, gathered supporters and spread the word far and wide, and still hit a brick wall, we have other suggestions. FixMyTransport allows us to get you writing to your local councillor, to the local paper, or to relevant groups like Passenger Focus, Transport for All, and the Campaign for Better Transport. These groups have been bashing away at the big problems like accessibility for far longer than we have, and it makes sense to tap into their expertise.

    We know that for some issues, it’ll be a long game – just as it’ll be a long game trying to get every operator fully signed-up to the notion of transparent online interaction. But we’ll keep trying, and we hope you will too.

  3. Who Is Your Audience?

    Today we consider another of the deep questions that must lie behind any site: who is your audience?

    This is, again, a seemingly simple question, but which often exposes a lot of unchecked assumptions or faulty thinking. In part this is because it’s really two questions, often confused, closely related, but with very different answers: Who can use your site, and Who will use it.

    The difference is subtle, but worth thinking through, because too often people don’t take the time to figure this out and end up with the opposite to what they hope for.

    You’re never going to get a site that everybody will use, but you want to build a site that anybody can use.

    Too many people aim at everybody ((I’ve seen proposals that expect 90% of the adult population of their country to be using their site within a year)), and end up with something that’s only usable by lawyers, or journalists, or political wonks, or FOI geeks, or people who are already activist supporters of whatever you’re trying to do.

    Those people should certainly be part of your audience, but your job is to go much broader than that ((unless you’re explicitly targeting only that niche, in which case you’re almost certainly not part of my target audience here.)). To be successful your site needs to be usable by people who aren’t already your supporters, who don’t understand all your technical language or the inner workings of your political, governmental, or legal structures, and (more importantly) don’t want to understand that, and shouldn’t need to.

    It is, of course, much harder to build sites like that. But that’s what we’re here to discuss. I’m sure we’ll return to some of these deep metaphysical questions from time to time, but next week we’re going to get into much more practical hands-on User Experience issues.

  4. What Are You Doing?

    Yesterday our metaphysical enquiries took us to the question of who you are. Today we stay in that general area with a high level “What Are You Doing?”

    This should be an easy question to answer, but I’m surprised by how often it isn’t. I encounter this a lot when I review funding proposals: often they fall into something akin to the underpants trap.

    Groups are often highly effective at describing a problem in their society that they hope to address ((often in way more detail than needed as if people are going to disagree that the highlighted issue is a Bad Thing)), but then they jump right into explaining the functionality of the website they’re going to build, skipping completely over the crucial middle step of how that’s going to help.

    I used to think that it must just be self-evident to the groups how the site they’re describing will solve the problem, and that I’m just being incredibly dense by not be able to discern that part, but I’ve seen this enough times now, and had enough follow-up “clarifying” conversations to realise that a lot of times, groups simply have no idea what they want their site to actually do. They (usually) know what they want the end result to be in society, but not how their project will help get them there. In fact they often seem to not even realise that these are two different things — their goal is no more nuanced than “Solve this problem”. And thus we end up with lots of sites with nothing but a vague approach of “raising awareness”, and no way for anyone to actually get involved or help move in the required direction ((other that like-ing, retweet-ing, +1-ing etc which might help raise more awareness, but won’t get you any closer to your goal unless all these people can actually do something)).

    This sort of website is fundamentally no different to handing out leaflets in the street — it may be slightly more efficient or cheaper or easier to reach a wider audience, but it doesn’t take advantage of any of the disruptive abilities of the web. It’s like a bookstore spending millions of dollars on online advertising to promote its mall store, as it has no online shopping facilities. And even most old-skool activist groups figured out a long time ago that leaflets are much more effective if they try to get someone to do something, rather than just educating people about a problem.

    Now, lest you misunderstand my point here: I’m not talking about adding a highfalutin “Theory of Change” section to your proposal. I certainly think having such an idea is valuable ((and Aaron Schwartz does a great job contrasting change-driven approaches from action-driven ones)), but I’m talking about something much simpler — being able to explain clearly what someone using your site will be able to do there.

    To take a common example, let’s say your area of interest is Freedom of Information in your country. Most countries have at least one NGO working in this area, monitoring how well government establishments are responding to information requests etc., and producing regular reports, full of complex tables and pretty bar charts. Then they decide to build a website. The default approach seems to be little more than taking the quarterly reports and put them online, maybe with a whole new educational section on how you can make your own requests.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com, on the other hand, has been hugely successful, and hugely disruptive, because it took an entirely different direction. The vast majority of people don’t care about Freedom of Information statistics — and that’s not simply because of the sorts of quantitative vs qualitative things us FOI nerds like to argue about, but because to most people, the only thing that really matters is whether they can successfully obtain information when they need to.

    And it turns out that catering to those people — removing as many barriers as possible (both technical and psychological) and making it as simple as possible for them to make a request, and layering on some extra transparency-driven-embarrassment incentives for government officials to actually provide the information, or for other users of the site to help when they don’t — not only makes them happy, but can very quickly snowball into something which has huge impact on the entire culture of access to information across your country in the process.

    The trap of “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it” is seductive, and as easy for activists and NGOs to fall into as it is for governments. So make sure you take the time to understand what your something is, and then spend even longer trying to make it a better thing.

  5. Mapumental: mapping a new path

    Mapumental map showing travel times to the Royal Festival Hall

    It’s high time we updated you on Mapumental, our journey-time mapping project. For those who may not remember, Mapumental is based on a simple idea: to visualise transit times, by public transport, from or to any postcode in Great Britain.

    It all began in 2006, when the Department for Transport approached us to see what we might do with public transport data; in 2009 we won an investment loan from Channel 4 and Screen West Midlands which enabled us to build a beta tool – you might have played with it. If not, go on, have a go. It’s fun!

    It’s been quite a long journey to where we are today. Unlike many mySociety projects, funding for Mapumental’s development came from a commercial investment loan, with a condition that we set it up as a business. For that reason, it’s not enough that it’s beautiful and useful – we need to find ways for it to be profitable, too. All revenues are set to come back to fund our not-for-profit activities.

    We could tell from very early on in the project that Mapumental would be a sought-after tool for all sorts of purposes, from business to personal use. For example, you can see commute times at a glance, so it’s great for house-hunters and job-seekers. Consequently, it’s also great for the property and recruitment industries.

    “Your maps look amazing, such a great way of representing what could be really boring data, but isn’t.” – A jobseeker

    We can see loads of other possibilities too – like urban planning. This sort of analysis would have been far more expensive in the past; with Mapumental, planners can see at a glance how accessible a new development would be by public transport. Its potential uses are wide-ranging, answering questions for businesses, organisations, charities, and public facilities – especially those wanting to maximise accessibility or encourage use of greener transport options.

    “The maps are a fantastic, a great tool and should be used for every planning application. I will be using Mapumental for all of our projects!” – Lee Taylor, Veridis Design

    We’ve recently refined a product that’s pared down from the dynamic maps you may remember from that beta tool: static maps. These are simple, non-interactive maps which show transit time in bands. They’re flexible in that they can be generated for any postcode, with any maximum travel time, and depict travel at any given time of day.

    We can provide a one-off map for personal use, or batches of many thousands of maps – as we have done for estate agents Foxtons, who now have a Mapumental map on every property listing.

    As we generate more and more maps for different uses, showing different parts of the country, we’re really enjoying digging out all sorts of surprising facts – like how it’s quicker to travel from Watford to Westminster than it is from some parts of Harringay. Or how Cardiff University students might sensibly live at all points east as far as Newport, but will be stymied for transport in the west if they live anywhere other than Barry or Bridgend.

    In fact, our very favourite use so far has come from an individual who centred his map around his home postcode. He tells us he has printed it off and put it up by the front door, so that on his way out of the house, he can find a new and surprising destination for day-trips.

    Find out more on the Mapumental website – and please do spread the word among friends and colleagues who might benefit from a Mapumental map.

  6. Who Are You?

    I want to kick off the discussion here with a few deep metaphysical questions: peering into the very soul of who you are, what you’re doing, what you want to achieve etc. Don’t worry, we’ll get on to some lighter stuff soon enough, but it’s worth taking the time to reflect a little more generally first — when I talk to NGOs and activists etc I’m surprised just how often people can’t adequately explain even what they’re doing, never mind why.

    But let’s start with the easier question: who you are. At the very least you should know the answer to that one!

    If you’re reading this there’s a fairly high likelihood you fall into one of two key groups: you’re either part of an NGO or activist group, wishing you had access to better programmers or technology skills, or you’re a geek/hacker trying to use those skills to directly make your society a better place.

    These days a lot of effort goes into trying to bridge these two groups, largely on the theory that bringing them together can help each achieve more. Generally I’m quite sceptical of that approach, though. It’s not that it never works of course (for pretty much everything I’m ever going to write here there are going to be well-known exceptions), but generally the dynamic in this relationship is all wrong. The assumption is usually that the ideas come from the NGO side, and then some programmers are brought in to do the fiddly work to actually Make It Happen.

    The business world used to work like this — the first big internet bubble was full of smooth talking MBAs raising lots of money for their dot.com ideas, hiring programmers to create the sites, and then sitting back to count their money. If you look at the businesses that actually survived from that period, however, most of them were the opposite of this. They was driven by geeks and techies and hackers who came up with ideas, created great sites and products, and then brought in some adult supervision to fill the gaps in their abilities. As Paul Graham has pointed out, you’re much better starting with a Bill Gates and later hiring a Steve Ballmer, than starting with Steve Ballmer and hoping he can hire a Bill Gates.

    That approach holds true in this world too. Three years ago, Tom Steinberg wrote an excellent blog post on his top tips for building an organisation like mySociety. His #1 tip?:

    Absolutely the most totally essential thing is to be an organisation of amazing, politically minded coders, not an organization employing or contracting good coders. Their skills are your lifeblood, their ideas your bread and butter, and finding the best civic hackers in your country and building your organization around them is the only path to success. And that means they should be making most of the day to day decisions, not you, you ignorant, arts-degree-clutching clot.

    But, what if you’re already an existing NGO? Does that mean there’s no hope for you at all? Well, not necessarily. But you certainly need to take a very close look at the dynamics of who you are, and who makes decisions and how. Jeff Bezos’ maxim that the old world of “location, location, location” has been displaced by a new world of “technology, technology, technology” is as true for activism as for retail. If you’re trying to build an online project that will actually make a difference, it needs to be a living, breathing entity, driven by people who both care about the issues and can create the technology required. You can’t just dream up a site, outsource the development, have it built, and leave it be. 99% of the time that’ll just get you a mediocre me-too site that might gain some initial interest, but will slowly fizzle away into irrelevance.

    Instead, you should — at the very least — surround yourself with as many great civic hackers as you can find. Ideally, however, you’ll go even further, and work on becoming one yourself. It’s not essential that you’re able to write every line of code yourself, but the more you can gain a deep understanding of what actually goes into building something, the more you’ll be able to make better decisions and the better the projects you create will be.

  7. How to get started with an Alaveteli site

    Just a quick blog post to note that there’s now a rudimentary Getting Started guide, which is recommended reading for anyone thinking of starting their own Alaveteli website.

  8. Why we made the travel time maps service

    This project became Mapumental. Please visit that site for details of our travel-time maps services.
    The work was funded and supported by the Department for Transport.

    We released our new service yesterday, which allows anyone to order personalised travel commuter maps for any location in Great Britain. Those of you who’ve followed this project for a while might be interested to know how we came to take this route.

    Having finished working on the backend and hosting infrastructure of the Mapumental technology last year, we started thinking about the products that should be built with it. To help us work this out, we talked to lots of people in sectors where journey times matter a lot: residential and commercial property, job search, tourism and public services. What we found is that while everyone loved the dynamic location search technology, there were many situations when people wanted to have a simple static map of commuting times.

    We heard that these maps would be useful to individuals looking for jobs or property – but also organisations, from property sites to providers of public services, businesses and entertainment venues who’d like a map to put on their website and brochures, or to use in internal analysis.

    At first we were surprised, but the more we thought about it, the more sense it made. Our search tool, which we are currently working on updating, serves a different purpose: it shows a combination of search criteria, including travel times, and lets the user play with different parameters interactively. But it did not provide a simple snapshot of travel times for a location, divided in bands which are very helpful in assessing commuting times. So we set out to make the map image service, which is what we launched yesterday.

    This was not particularly straightforward to make, and there were many things to consider: how exactly should the shop work, and what should it offer people? We have settled on four core options for the standard maps: total time mapped, direction of travel (whether the location is where one arrives at, or departs from), arrival or departure time, and custom map title. These maps are really easy to order from the website, and we can make them very quickly.

    Online ordering works really well for small quantities, but is not ideal for high-volume clients. So we also created a new API – a URL fetcher which allows to create maps in high quantities, as and when needed. These maps can be fully customised, from the choice of colours to number of bands and zoom levels.

    The the very first user of our API is Foxtons, the estate agent, who added commuter maps to their property listings last week. It is suitable for any property, jobs or hotels site who hold location information (postcodes, or latitude and longitude) for their listings. The API can equally be used by those needing maps for internal purposes, such as city planners, public services and businesses with multiple branches.

    We are really excited that the service has gone live, and we hope that it helps people and organisations in all sorts of ways. A big thank you to Channel 4 and Screen West Midlands, who have provided the commercial investment to enable the development of Mapumental technology and the new service.

    If you have any feedback or comments, we’d love to hear them.

    Sample map: travel times to Wembley Stadium

  9. September pub meet

    The Counting House, Cornhill, London

    Our monthly pub meets are proving to be a great place for friendly discussions and meeting new folk. The next one is on Tuesday the 20th, again at the Counting House pub. You are invited!

    We’re generally to be found in one of the back rooms upstairs and at least one of us will be wearing a mySociety hoodie. We’ll try and tweet on the @mySociety Twitter account to say exactly where we are – it’s a big pub and it can be crowded early on in the evenings.

    If you’d like to tweet about the night, or put photos on Instagram or Flickr, you can use the hashtag #mysocial.

    7.30, Tuesday 20th September at the Counting House
    50 Cornhill
    EC3V 3PD

    Map here. The nearest Underground stations are Monument and Bank.

  10. First Mapumental-powered property travel time maps go live

    We’re delighted to announce that leading London estate agent Foxtons has become the first property player to use Mapumental maps on its website. Visitors to Foxtons.co.uk will now see that every property listed includes a travel time map, highlighted in Foxtons’ brand colours.

    Foxtons, whose website just won an award for Best Interface Design at the 2011 International Business Awards, were quick to see the value of travel time maps for house-hunters. Thousands of listings now display a simple, beautiful, map showing how long a commute to work or visit to friends will take on public transport – vital pieces of information to consider when looking for a new home.

    The property sector is not the only area of business that stands to benefit from Mapumental’s ground-breaking mapping technology. Mapumental is already talking to major players in the travel industry and recruitment sectors.  Virtually any business that needs to show users how much time it takes to travel to or from a given spot will find these maps very valuable.

    One of Mapumental’s core strengths is its  flexibility when it comes to volume – it can provide anything from a single map at a great price to tens of thousands at a significant volume discount.

    The service utilises travel-time mapping technology developed by mySociety, drawing journey data from the NPTDR dataset. The same data also drives mySociety’s newest project FixMyTransport.com, which launched just last week, and covers all modes of public transport within GB.

    For the maps service, our algorithm calculates journey times from any given point (postcode or latitude and longitude) to every other point in Great Britain. These journey times are displayed as a heatmap, on a background from OpenStreetMap.

    Foxtons has made use of the new Mapumental API which enables clients to define the maps’ appearance precisely according to their company preferences. Parameters for choice include:

    • maximum travel time
    • number of time bands to show
    • colour scheme
    • the direction of travel (to or from the chosen location)
    • target arrival or departure time
    • other information (such as title and legend) that goes on the map.

    The image is then automatically created and can be published on a website and/or included in printed materials. Website owners can publish the maps themselves, or we can create bespoke integration solutions for them..

    To find out more about how Mapumental might work for you, please drop us a line.

    Here are some samples of our maps:

    Travel times from a residential development in Sevenoaks, departing at 7am

    Travel times from St Pancras Reneissance Hotel, departing at 8am

    Travel times to reach Cardiff University by 10am