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. Mozilla and Ubuntu have an opportunity (and a duty) to unlock the cognitive surplus

    There’s been a lot written recently about the cognitive surplus, a phrase coined by Clay Shirky to describe the amount of human energy that can be deployed to create things if only barriers are lowered and incentives sharpened.

    mySociety has recently been fortunate enough to see a little of this phenomenon through the explosion of volunteering activity which grew up around our TheyWorkForYou video timestamping ‘game’. For those of you not familiar, we needed video clips of politician’s speaking matched with the text of their speeches, and in just a couple of months a gang of volunteers new and old have done almost all of the video in the archive. Other, much larger examples include reCAPTCHA and the ESP game.

    Reflecting on this, my friend Tom Lynn suggested that there was a gap in the market for a service that would draw together different crowdsourcing games, ensure that their usability standards and social benefit were high, and which then syndicate them out in little widgets, recaptcha style, to anyone who wanted to include one on a web page.

    This is where Mozilla and Ubuntu come in. Anyone who uses Firefox knows what the home page is like, essentially the Google homepage with some Firefox branding. Ubuntu’s default browser homepage, post patch upgrade especially, is similarly minimalist and focused on telling you what’s changed.

    Therein lies the opportunity – using pieces of these default home pages (maintained by organisations that claim to have a social purpose, remember) for more good than simply repeatedly reminding users about the the brand of the product. Traditionally that would mean asking people to donate or become volunteers, but the new universe of ultra-easy crowdsourcing games are challenging that assumption.

    Here’s a scenario. One time in ten when I load Firefox, the homepage contains a widget right under the search box that contains an almost entirely self explanatory task that contributed to the public good in some way. This could be spotting an object on a fragment of satellite photo after a disaster, typing in a word that’s difficult to OCR, timestamping a video clip, or adding tags to an image or a paragraph of text. The widgets would be syndicated from the central repository of Cognitive Surplus Foundation ‘games’, and would help groups like Mozilla and Ubuntu to show themselves to millions of tech-disinterested users to be the true 21st century social enterprises that they want to be.

  3. mySociety Away Weekend

    A couple of weekends ago when it was still sunny, a group of 20 or so mySociety developers, trustees, and volunteers went away together to a farmhouse in Warwickshire (thanks to everyone especially Tim Morley and Tom Loosemore for their help). This was not only an opportunity for people like me to finally meet all those I’ve been emailing for months if not years, but also to discuss various things about mySociety.

    It was an excellent weekend – we learnt lots of new things, like how UKCOD and mySociety have developed over the last 10 years(!), Rob’s excellent NZ TheyWorkForYou, and Richard’s PlanningAlerts.com. We also discussed what mySociety’s core aims and principles should be – here are some thoughts:


    1) Build sites that build civic value, using the internet natively as a medium and that scale elegantly
    2) Build sites that are easy to use for those without experience
    3) Build sites that are focused on meeting one simple need
    4) mySociety should become self-sustaining, financially and staff-wise

    Principles for developing mySociety services and products

    1) Build things that meet people’s needs, and that they can’t express yet
    2) Do one thing really, really, really well (brand on one thing)
    3) Treat the entire world as a creative canvas (plug-ins, widgets, etc.)
    4) Do not attempt to do everything yourself; use other people’s content
    5) Back success, get rid of failure
    6) The web is a conversation; join in
    7) Any website is only as good as its worst page
    8) Make sure your content can be linked to forever
    9) Your granny will never use Second Life
    10) Maximize roots to content; optimize your site to run high on Google
    11) One size does not fit all – users should know they’re on your site
    12) Accessibility is not an optional extra
    13) Let people paste their content on their own sites
    14) Link to discussions on the web, not necessarily host them
    15) Personalization should be unobtrusive and coherent

    And some more thoughts:

    1) Only use html and CSS
    2) Ensure accessibility
    3) Ensure usability
    4) Make it work across the spectrum – screen readers to mobile phones
    5) Build things that don’t require key “stick in the muds?? to do anything
    6) Don’t ever build anything that might become an empty cupboard, or if you do, make it very easy for people to fill that cupboard.
    7) Don’t rely on network effect, but do seek out network effect
    8) Engineer serendipity
    9) Help users connect with other users
    10) Set the bar high for privacy

    However, we still have some challenges ahead: we need to think about how to make the most of our existing sites, and had a very good session on how to improve PledgeBank’s outreach; we also need to engage better with both our current and potential volunteers; and, of course, move towards becoming financially self-sustaining to keep up our good work without always relying on grants.

    And finally, because we like tangible actions, we launched the UKCOD site on Saturday night too.

    So what happens next? Well some of the things have already happened, like Matthew and others transforming FixMyStreet and Francis developing some widgets. We’ll also see what the new PM wants to do with e-petitions (keep it, apparently, which is good), and how the e-democracy landscape is changing. And, soon we hope, we’ll give this site a bit of a facelift.

    But we still have much to do, and the weekend wasn’t long enough to get through everything we wanted. So here are a few more things to chew over.

    • Have you wanted to volunteer for mySociety but found it difficult, e.g. the tasks were too technical, or didn’t really know where to start?
    • Is there something you want to know about mySociety, or our sites, but not been able to find?
    • How can we improve our existing sites?
    • Do you know any nice millionaires with some spare cash burning a hole in their pockets, and they just don’t know what to do with it?

    Let us know why and we’ll try to do something about it.

  4. Phew!

    It’s very quiet today. I’ve been updating the projects page now that HearFromYourMP is truly launched. This means we’ve built all the original launch projects, except GiveItAway (more about what is happening with that another time). And it’s over a year since mySociety began. I feel exhausted, and definitely need to take some holiday – I was going to go to Egypt last month, but moved house instead.

    This week was usability week. Or was that last week, I’ve got confused. Anyway, Tom made about a million tickets with little usability tweaks to all the sites. Most of these have been put in now, but there’s still lots to do. Good software is about polish polish polish polish, and more polish. I could spend another few years just polishing these sites without making any more.

    I’ve also been doing a bit of work on “cobranding”. An ugly marketing term, but there you go. We’ve had a Cheltenham version of WriteToThem for some time. As well as local government, we’re also looking at campaigns groups. So we’ve done a version for AnimalAid, which they’ll be using from their website soon. Apart from the logo and colours, cobranding has some benefits for the user. It’ll make them think they haven’t changed website, and be less disconcerting. In particular, it’ll take them back to other campaigns actions when they’re done.