1. mySociety design tips: minimise clicks, especially on the homepage

    This tip is easy, and it builds on two earlier ones: don’t force your users to make any more clicks than absolutely necessary. Identify what they’ll probably be trying to do, and let them begin that as soon as possible, especially on the homepage.


    "Click beetle (Agrypnus murinus)" by Rachel Scopes
    (CC-BY-NC-ND-licensed from Flickr)

    There are three things to think about here:

    • Is there anything you can do to remove an extra click for a user? Do you really, really need that information from them? Or do you really need them to press ‘OK’ here?
    • Too many clicks and users will abandon their task especially on sites where people are engaging with government or politics for the first time
    • Most users began their task before they arrived at the site

    The second point is especially relevant to users of civic sites like the ones we build. This is different from other websites. For example, if you go online to book a flight, or pay tax, or buy flowers because you forgot your mother’s birthday, even if the website is difficult or frustrating to use, you will stay on it until you have finished. The result is more important than the barriers: you need to finish. But people who are thinking about reporting a pothole they just missed on their bicycle that morning, or writing to their parliamentary representative for the first time, or making a freedom of information request — well, these people are already making an unusual effort. If you do anything at all to make that harder for them, then they can and they will give up. Civic sites must make the task so easy that nothing discourages users from finishing the mission they started.

    The third point is more subtle. Earlier this year, Francis Irving explained how clicking on Google was part of the product. This means that, by the time a user has arrived on your site, they may already be many clicks and key-presses into the process. The more you prolong this effort, and especially if you prolong it with unnecessary or annoying extra clicks, the more likely it is that they will give up.

    A user who gives up does not accomplish the task you wanted them to do.
    A user who gives up might never bother to try again.
    Civic engagement can be that fragile, especially for first-time users.

    As we’ve already pointed out in a previous blog post, it’s likely that someone will arrive at your site on the “wrong” page, and so they will click again to get to your homepage. That click has already prolonged their journey. Click-fatigue starts to set in. You must help them to start doing something — instead of still clicking around trying to get to the place where they can start — as soon as possible. This is why you should think of the homepage as the centre of your website: it’s not the cover page or an introduction — it’s where people already on your site go to get things get done.

    Or, to put it another way, by the time users have got to your homepage, perhaps they won’t have any spare clicks left.

    Of course, we have to be pragmatic about this and make sensible guesses about what users will be trying to do — it’s silly to try to cover everything. We study our web analytics and do user-testing, but even if you can’t do that, it’s usually fairly easy to identify the key tasks. We don’t just think of the homepage as an introduction, or a cover page, or a portal (although it can also sometimes serve those purposes): ideally, for the most common tasks, it must be the start. The task does not need to be finished — that can be several pages further on. As we showed in an earlier blog post, we just need to get users started.

    Let users make a useful click — even better, a successful click — and they stop thinking about giving up, and start getting things done.

  2. mySociety design tips: every page is the home page

    If you’re building any civic or democratic website, we know that you’ll want to make its homepage beautiful and unique. After all, you want to make a good impression on your users, and first impressions are the ones that count.

    Go ahead! Dive in and make it special… but also take our advice and don’t burn all your energy on building a perfect homepage. The reason why is that many of your users will come to your site without ever seeing your homepage.

    The main reason for this is the influence of search engines, Twitter and Facebook. These have already changed users’ behaviour during the short history of the World Wide Web: there was a time when people could be expected to start on the front of your site and work inwards, clicking on the links you provided, step by step. But several  things now work against this: search engine results link to pages deep within your website; links are easily and routinely shared (email, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, even QR codes); and people are becoming accustomed to simple URLs that they might compose by hand, such as mysociety.org/contact. Realistically you must expect a user’s first page to be any* page on your website.

    This means that, on every page except the homepage, your users may have arrived without any context or history — and, importantly, without the benefit of all the fabulous design time you’ve put into that glorious homepage.


    “Teleport” by mercurialn (CC BY-NC-ND licensed from Flickr)

    Spend some time thinking about how you are treating those people. Imagine they’ve been teleported into a strange land; they know, roughly, what planet they’re on, but otherwise it’s all new to them. That’s how bewildering this could be to a user who’s clicked on a link that drops them deep into your website. It’s a common experience and it’s easy to get right, but if you get it wrong, they will just as easily teleport out again. And they will think: “that is not somewhere I want to visit again.”

    None of this is very radical. But the point is that it’s very easy to overlook — especially because, if you’re one of the developers working on a site, you already know too much about how it works to be objective when you look at what you’ve made.

    Here are some things you should consider:

    • Do your pages instantly say what they’re for? A new user landing on an unfamiliar page will grope for some explanation – “This is a page about a politician”, or “This is a page about problems in this street”. You need to make sure you spell it out somewhere easy to see.
    • Can the user easily take an action from this page? If the user was looking for more than just a quick hit of information, the chances are that they want to get something done. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that, just because they’ve landed on this page, this is the page where they want to be. For example, if you look at any one problem report on FixMyStreet and you will find a big “Report a problem” link in yellow at the top of the page.

    So you should of course create a beautiful, functional homepage, but you should never forget that almost every page on your website will be a homepage for someone.

    * Technical note: as you’d expect, there are a few exceptions to this (admin pages and so on), but in general all our sites deliberately offer their data pages with URLs that allow such indexing.

  3. mySociety design tips: when a date is not a date

    long now clock

    “Clock of the long now (prototype)” by piglicker (CC-BY-NC-ND-licensed from Flickr)

    One of the democratic software tools mySociety has built is an online petitions tool for use by governments. We built the first version for the British Prime Minister’s office, and now it is used by a variety of British local governments.

    When a user wants to make a new petition, they fill in a web form, containing the petition details.

    During this process, a user must choose when they want their petition to end.

    The question we are exploring today is this: what’s the best way to ask for that information?

    From a developer’s point of view, the end of a petition is obviously a date. This is because the petition software really needs to test whether or not today’s date comes after the petition’s end-date. So an easy — and accessible — way to ask for this data would be as a date input, which could even helpfully trigger a calendar pop-up menu or similar widget.

    But we don’t do it like that, for a couple of reasons, both of which you might miss if you were to build this from scratch. Instead, we ask:

    For how long would you like your petition to accept signatures? (e.g., “1 month”; maximum 1 year)

    That’s not a date input. But why?

    The first reason is that the user is thinking about running a petition as something they plan to do for a period of time. Put simply, if you’re asked about your next holiday, you’ll probably imagine what you’ll be doing (“I’m going to spend two weeks lying on the beach”) rather than the end of it (“I’m going to stop lying on the beach on the 25th of August”).

    In terms of interface design, this means that users will tend to think about how long something lasts differently than from how a computer or a coder will tend to think about it. The general rule is: even for something as simple as this little web form, if it’s possible to create an interface that matches the way that a user thinks about the world, then it will be less confusing for them than one that does not. Usually this means the system has to be a bit more complicated to program, in order to convert what the user types to what the computer needs.

    The second reason that we ask for a duration, not a date, is that in the case of the petition, the user doesn’t actually know when their petition is going to start. Although they’re entering it into the website right now, there will nearly always be a delay before the government approves it. So most of the time, by asking for a duration, we’re avoiding raising this issue at all, and the user simply says what they mean, and it works. A petition with a duration of “3 months” will run for three months, once it goes live. A date wouldn’t survive an unspecified delay like that.

    So, we ask for a duration and parse the result to turn it into a date when it goes live… but there’s an extra twist. What if the user really does know the date their petition must end? Maybe it’s a petition about closing the main road for a New Year’s Party, and it’s got to be discussed at the council meeting that’s being held on the 5th of December. Well — OK! If the user puts a date into the duration field, even though we didn’t ask for a date… we accept it. We can do some validation to make sure it’s a sensible date, of course, but basically if someone does puts a date in there, then that’s fine too.

    What we hope this has shown you is that even something as simple as asking a user for an end date can be done easily (just use a date input there) or thoughtfully. The system wouldn’t break if we did it the other way. But making things as convenient as this means that we are allowing users to focus on the thing we’re trying to let them do, instead of drawing attention to how we are making them do it.

  4. mySociety tips: why the FixMyStreet homepage asks one easy question

    Simple things are the most easily overlooked. Two examples: a magician taking a wand out of his pocket (see? so simple that maybe you’ve never thought about why it wasn’t on the table at the start), or the home page on www.fixmystreet.com.
    FixMyStreet home page location box screenshot

    The first thing FixMyStreet asks for is a location. That’s so simple most people don’t think about it; but it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, a lot of services like this would begin with a login form (“who are you?”) or a problem form (“what’s the problem you want to report?”). Well, we do it this way because we’ve learned from years of experience, experiment and, yes, mistakes.

    We start off by giving you, the user, an easy problem (“where are you?”) that doesn’t offer any barrier to entry. Obviously, we’re very generous as to how you can describe that location (although that’s a different topic for another blog post). The point is we’re not asking for accuracy, since as soon as we have the location we will show you a map, on which you can almost literally pinpoint the position of your problem (for example, a pothole). Pretty much everyone can get through that first stage — and this is important if we want people to use the service.

    How important? Well, we know that when building a site like FixMyStreet, it’s easy to forget that nobody in the world really needs to report a pothole. They want to, certainly, but they don’t need to. If we make it hard for them, if we make it annoying, or difficult, or intrusive, then they’ll simply give up. Not only does that pothole not get reported, but those users probably won’t bother to try to use FixMyStreet ever again.

    So, before you know it, by keeping it simple at the start, we’ve got your journey under way — you’re “in”, the site’s already helping you. It’s showing you a map (a pretty map, actually) of where your problem is. Of course we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to use that map (and, yes, we also let you skip it if for some reason a map doesn’t help you). You see other problems, already reported (maybe you’ll notice that your pothole is already there — and we haven’t wasted any of your time making you tell us about it, even though you probably didn’t realise we intended right from the start to show you other people’s problems before you reported your own). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we now know which jurisdictions are responsible for the specific area, so the drop-down menu of categories you’re about to be invited to pick from will already be relevant for the council departments (for example) that your report will be going to.

    And note that we still haven’t asked you who you are. We do need to know — we send your name and contact details to the council as part of your report — but you didn’t come to FixMyStreet to tell us who you are, you came first and foremost to report the problem. So we focus on the reporting, and when that is all done then, finally, we can do the identity checks.

    Of course there’s a lot more to it than this, and it’s not just civic sites like ours that use such techniques (most modern commerce sites have realised the value of making it very easy to take your order before any other processing; many governmental websites have not). But we wanted to show you that if you want to build sites that people use, you should be as clever as a magician, and the secret to that is often keeping it simple — deceptively simple — on the outside.

  5. MapIt Global


    We’ve mentioned Components before on this blog – they’re modules which you can slot into your website, and which should save you a lot of time and effort. Today, we’re pleased to announce that a fundamental Component is ready for use – MapIt Global.

    This Component will match geographical points to administrative areas anywhere in the world. So for example, you can use it on sites like FixMyStreet, where we ask the user for a zipcode/postcode, and then automatically knows which council to send their report to.

    mySociety’s Director Tom has written an in-depth blog post about MapIt Global. You’ll want to read it if you’re thinking of building a site or app for reporting street faults, for contacting elected representatives, for parliamentary monitoring… or just maybe you have ideas for a type of website that we haven’t even thought of. We look forward to seeing how MapIt Global will be used.

    Questions? Thoughts? We’d love to hear them, either on this post or on Tom’s.

  6. New Alaveteli upgrade

    It's Loud, by Caterpiya

    Version 0.6 of Alaveteli, our Right to Know platform, has just been released. Some of the major features of the new release are for users, some for Admin:

    • We’re all so used to the concept of getting updates on a ‘wall’ or a ‘stream’, thanks to Facebook and Twitter – and now users can do the same on Alaveteli sites.
    • It’s difficult to moderate all unsuitable requests when you are running a high-traffic site – but now you can tap into the power of the crowd, with ‘report this request’ buttons (and a moderation list in Admin).
    • The back-end looks extra smart now, thanks to some nifty code “built for and by nerds” by Twitter (Bootstrap).
    • And – one for developers – Alaveteli is now using Bundler wherever possible.

    Seb’s also written a round-up of the most interesting changes and bug-fixes. If you’re running an Alaveteli site, or just thinking about it, you should head over there for a read.

    Image by Caterpiya.

  7. Extracting Administrative Boundaries from OpenStreetMap – Part 1

    Boundary Stone between Yorkshire and Lancashire

    "Boundary Stone 1" taken by Tim Green (CC-BY-licensed from Flickr)

    This is the first part of a two-part blog post about some of our work on making it easier to deploy FixMyStreet and MapIt in new countries.  This part describes how to generate KML for a given boundary in OpenStreetMap. Update: the second part is now available.

    As mentioned in a previous post, we’re looking at ways of making it smoother to deploy FixMyStreet for a new country, city or use-case.  Essentially there are two fundamental bits of data that you need for this:

    1. a mapping between a latitude and longitude (or postcode) to all the adminstrative areas that cover that point.
    2. a mapping between problem type and adminstrative areas to an appropriate email address for reporting that problem.

    The first of those is typically provided by a service called MapIt, an open source GeoDjango web application written by Matthew Somerville.  In the UK we are fortunate that official boundary data and the postcode database have now been released under an open data license from the Ordnance Survey.  However, in other many other countries similar data is unavailable, or not available under reasonable licensing conditions.  In such cases, though, all is not lost thanks to the extraordinary work of contributors to the OpenStreetMap project.  OpenStreetMap contains high-quality administrative boundary data for many countries of the world, and we know that data submitted to the project is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, so we can reuse it in a web service like MapIt.

    The first step towards being able to build an instance of MapIt based on OpenStreetMap boundary data is to be able to generate a shapefile that represents a boundary in the project.  (In OpenStreetMap’s data model, boundaries are represented as either ways or relations, and those that we are interested in are tagged with boundary=administrative.)  Matthew had previously written code to generate KML files for boundaries in Norway in order to help to set up an instance of MapIt for Norway, which is used by FiksGataMi.  However, that script was quite specific to the organization of boundaries in that country, and it did not deal with more complex boundary topologies (e.g. enclaves), or different representations of boundaries (e.g. multiply nested relations).

    So, Matthew and I wrote a new version of the code to extract a boundary from OpenStreetMap and generate a KML representation of it. The new version uses the Overpass API instead of XAPI, since it allows us to specify multiple predicates in the query and recursively fetch the ways and nodes that are contained in a relation.  Once all the ways that make up a relation have been fetched (ignoring those with roles like “defaults” or “subarea”), the script tries to join each unclosed way to any other with which it shares an endpoint.  We should end up with a series of closed polygons – the script exits in error if there are any unclosed ways left.  We can then directly create KML from these polygons, the only subtlety being that we need to mark certain boundaries as being an inner boundary (i.e., creating a hole in a boundary) if they had the role “enclave” or “inner” in an OpenStreetMap relation. For example, the South Cambridgeshire District Council boundary has a Cambridge City Council-shaped hole in it:

    South Cambridgeshire District Council boundary

    Similarly, the script has to cope with multiple distinct polygons, such as the boundary of Orkney.

    If you want to use this code to generate a KML representation of a closed way or boundary relation from OSM, just clone the MapIt repository and run bin/boundaries.py:

    $ bin/boundaries.py --help
    Usage: boundaries.py [options]
      -h, --help            show this help message and exit
      --test                Run all doctests in this file
                            Output KML for the OSM relation <RELATION_ID>
      --way=<WAY_ID>        Output KML for the OSM way <WAY_ID>

    For example, to generate a KML boundary for the Hottingen area of Zürich, you can do:

    $ bin/boundaries.py --relation=1701449 > hottingen.kml

    In the next blog post in this series, we will discuss extracting such boundaries en masse and creating a service based on them.

  8. Alaveteli in La Nacion

    Romina Colman

    Romina Colman was one of the delegates at the Alaveteli conference. As well as making videos, tweeting at a good pace, and talking to everyone, Romina took the time to write up her experiences for Argentina’s national newspaper, La Nacion.

    If Spanish is not your language, you can now read the English versions on the Alaveteli blog.

    How to give a voice to the people

    Eight steps to understanding and implementing Alaveteli


  9. Alaveteli and mySociety

    Just to finish off this collection of video clips from the Alaveteli conference, here are a couple featuring mySociety people. They were shot by Romina Colman.

    First, mySociety Director Tom Steinberg, talking about what he hopes will happen as a result of the conference.

    And below is Seb Bacon, Lead Developer of the Alaveteli Platform, explaining how the project began:

    You can see all Romina’s videos from the Alaveteli Conference – some in English, some in Spanish – on YouTube. Romina also put together a Storify story of the conference.

    Phew! Do you feel like you were there yet? If you’ve been inspired by the examples and advice from transparency hackers and activists around the world, you may be thinking about building your own Alaveteli site. Why not join our mailing list and introduce yourself? After all, if you’ve watched these videos, you’ll already be familiar with many of the people on the list!

  10. Alaveteli in Italy

    Romina Colman is, in her own words, a Freedom of Information activist from Buenos Aires. She did a great job of recording events at AlaveteliCon, what with blogging for Argentina’s national newspaper La Nacion, copious tweeting, and videos.

    Here, Romina speaks to Andrea Menapace from Italy, co-founder of Diritto di Sapere.

    In this short clip (1:15), Andrea explains the current situation with Freedom of Information in Italy, and what his nascent organisation hopes to achieve.

    Together with Guido Romeo (science editor at Wired Italy) I am the founder of Diritto di Sapere, a brand new organisation working on the Right to Information and Transparency in Italy. I am a lawyer by training and I have been working as a researcher and project manager in human rights and humanitarian organizations. I am currently working as a consultant for international NGOs on digital media and civil society capacity building projects.

    Find Andrea on Twitter.