A better website brief


As someone who runs an agency offering WordPress website development, I get quite a lot of website development briefs in my inbox. Some are excellent: they give me and the team a clear sense of what’s required. Typically, they’re documents under 20 pages long which talk quite a lot about users and goals and priorities, about what’s good and bad about the current site, what’s known and unknown, what needs to change and why. They ask for our ideas and suggestions about how the digital platform and they way we develop it together can help solve strategic questions for the organisation.

Other briefs are less helpful. They’re invariably longer, start with the procurement process, talk little about users or content but in great detail about must-have features (which frequently aren’t really features). They ask us to explain – and these are genuine examples, I promise – how we’ll foster improved race relations through the CMS build process or the margin we apply to subcontractors’ day rates or to confirm we’ll run Gateway meetings at the end of each ‘AGILE’ sprint. I’m not sure what kind of suppliers happily fill in those templates and earnestly tailor their response to the weighted percentage scoring system described, but I suspect they aren’t the ones who build the best websites. If you require those things as a client, you’re just asking to be lied to.

I understand that it’s hard to go shopping for a new website, especially if you’ve not worked in that field. Procurement colleagues frequently don’t help, with their convoluted templates and inhuman portals. I don’t blame the clients who issue bad briefs, but I would like to help them write better ones, based on 15 years’ experience both dishing out briefs and trying to respond to them.

So here’s a template – a set of questions we look for answers to as suppliers of this kind of thing, to help us cost a job. Briefs that give us this information will get a more useful, precise proposal from us, and almost certainly a more competitive price since there’s so much less risk involved for us to cost in.

I’d really appreciate thoughts and comments from others on the Google Doc.

Direct link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tlNuVhw44-5MVj48iewhNHGAYp_7r8iqNUc3r8xNjiE/edit

The bottom line is that you don’t have to know exactly what you need, but you should be able to talk about what’s important to you and why. The best briefs are up-front about this: they say what’s known and what isn’t, and give us the opportunity to recommend a proper discovery phase to scope out the user needs, content, constraints and technology so that together we can focus the budget on what’s most likely to work.

Photo Credit: Hegemony77 clothes for dolls and 1/6 figures via Compfight cc

Doing the right thing right


Our office partners, Claremont, have a new motto: Do the right thing right. It’s annoying, because it’s probably what I’d choose if I were choosing a motto for what we do. More than kudos, more than money, more than publicity, the sense of craft in building a really good website or delivering some really useful training for the good guys is what I enjoy, I’m coming to realise.

So briefly – because I should really be doing something else – I’m bursting with pride at the craftsmanship that the team have put into our largest website redevelopment project to date which has just gone live.

Grantham theme

Our work for the Committee on Climate Change brought us to the attention of the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and we’ve been working with the team there since January, following a competitive pitch. It’s a big site, but absolutely the kind of thing we do well: cross-referencing news stories and publications, bringing out the quality of the Institute’s people with rich, live profiles, search that really works, and hopefully saving the team hundreds of publishing hours each year through the magic of WordPress implemented properly.

It’s our best-looking site (on a range of devices) thanks to Anthony, and one of our cleverest thanks to Luke, and has faithfully copied across hundreds of documents and stories thanks to our team of content wizards. We’ve kept in close touch as a project team, and tested extensively with users throughout the process, from card sorting which helped the team make radical decisions on information architecture, through rounds of accompanied browsing, to online Chalkmark tests.

Here’s to the team, who’ve put their talents to good use, and done the right thing right.



Opening up

Lottery Lolly

Twenty years ago, before regular people had the web, I was a 13 year old discovering a hybrid database/scripting application called HyperCard. One of my early projects was a random number generator for the newly-launched National Lottery, which incredibly, made it onto the cover floppy disk (‘3MB of great software!’) one of the early editions of Macformat magazine. I was smart: I didn’t put my home address on it, but I did put my school address in the Read Me. So for several weeks after, they came: little letters in the class register with exotic postmarks, from Scotland, Cyprus, Germany, Australia. They contained patient advice on how to improve my randomisation algorithm (it sometimes generated the same number twice). Versions ported to Pascal, or with a nicer UI, or ideas for new features. Some even included the odd financial donation too. My 13 year old friends were in equal parts bemused and impressed.

I never stopped fiddling with code, though I never properly trained in it either. Fast forward ten years, and I was releasing an open source DIY survey package I’d built because I was annoyed with SurveyMonkey – and the feature requests, support queries and very occasional donations came too, this time by email. Four years ago, I was blogging here, and releasing WordPress themes for consultations, as a salaried civil servant. Still the emails and ideas came: lovely, exotic, motivating, time-consuming, rewarding, emails.

Now I run a micro business and coding is for food as well as for fun. Even more than ten years ago, we depend on open source projects and the altruism of others in forums and blog posts, troubleshooting and extending them for us – making our lives easier and helping us make a profit from their work through the services we offer our clients. So when people have understandably asked if we’ll be releasing the code behind our work for DCMS on the intranet, the memory of twenty years of lovely, exotic, time-consuming emails coming flooding back before I feel ready to say: yes. Yes, of course.

To do otherwise would be hypocritical, and counterproductive. And our strongest ‘competitors’ are well ahead of us on this: the Simons at Code for The People have been contributing their plugins to the WordPress directory and playing an integral part in core releases too for years. Harry at DXW has been submitting patches and worrying about password hashing in WordPress core too. So it’s about time we started sharing more of our code and contributing back a bit more, and building time to handle those lovely emails into our business model. These days, GitHub and other tools make that easy.

I think there’s an important difference between saying ‘you can use our stuff, it’s on GitHub’, and actually helping the writers of those lovely, exotic, time-consuming emails to use the stuff that’s been released in their own work – many of whom aren’t especially expert developers but see the appeal of reusing work from elsewhere. We work mainly in WordPress, a massive community project with a vibrant ecosystem of plugins and themes where people expect to find answers ready-made, reliable, and free (and they’ll complain bitterly, without justification, to altruistic plugin and theme developers when they don’t). So releasing a WordPress thing isn’t just an extra commit, it’s a proper commitment.

Luke’s written more about what we’re doing, but in a nutshell, we’re releasing a tidied up, customisable version of our work for DCMS which anyone can pick up and use on their own intranet-style site. We’re started the process of documenting it better, there’s a demo you can play with, and we’ll do our best to answer questions. Thanks to GitHub, technically minded people can contribute their own improvements, so it hopefully becomes a small community project of its own.

We’ll also be introducing a new section of this site to bring together information about our code releases, where they are, their requirements, current status and more. In some cases, we’ll submit them to the WordPress plugin/theme directory too.

Open sourcing your core outputs feels like a scary thing to do as a micro business when they’re so easily re-usable by others working in the same sectors. But we reckon we’re about more than just code, as Luke’s blogging over the years clearly illustrates.

Make things open: it makes things better, as some wise folk once said.

Introducing CommentariatGOVUK

It’s almost Christmas, we skipped the 24tips this year, so I thought I’d release a cheeky little mince pie of a WordPress theme in case others find it useful.

CommentariatGOVUK demo

Today’s seen the launch of the latest little site on our Read+Comment platform, designed for fast-turnaround, flexible publishing of documents for comment. DCLG wanted a site to make commentable the Report of the Planning Guidance Review, led by Lord Taylor of Goss Moor. DCLG is one of the pioneer departments which has moved its corporate site to GOV.UK, so this was an opportunity to revisit Commentariat, the customisable WordPress theme I developed for Read+Comment, and sprinkle a bit of the GOV.UK cosmic dust over it.

CommentariatGOVUK, the new version of the theme, is designed to be reminiscent of the Inside Government part of GOV.UK, in terms of basic layout and some elements of typography. Clearly, there’s a lot more to the GOV.UK platform than visual design, but we’re not in a position on Read+Comment to impose style guides or integrate with other Departments’ content. But we can offer a bit more flexibility in terms of functionality through the openness of the WordPress platform, and the skills that are out there amongst WordPress developers.

See a demo of the theme in action (content from ministryoflorem.com)

I quite like the simplicity and flexibility of what we’ve come up with, and decided (with CLG’s support) to release it today:

  • A range of templates to support home pages, landing pages and content pages with an easily accessible table of contents
  • Flexible menus to link to forms, other sites, or pages
  • Ample use of WordPress widget areas to drop in RSS feeds from elsewhere, little promos, listings and videos
  • The same kind of user-friendly theme options panel that we’ve always had, enabling site managers to customise colour schemes, decide where comments should sit and add their own tracking code or custom CSS
  • Added responsiveness, so things work nicely on smaller screens, thanks to a new foundation based on the 1140 Fluid Grid and Starkers reset theme (our standard WordPress starting point these days)

The theme works nicely coupled with a few solid WordPress plugins we often find ourselves implementing for clients, particularly Spots from the chaps at InterconnectIT  and Gravity Forms (for flexible response forms).

On the DCLG site, we’ve used Transport New from K-Type, a budget DIY version of the elegant typeface GDS commissioned, but which hasn’t been released or made commercially available, yet. Since this is a paid-for typeface, we’re not able to distribute it here, but included a couple of links so you can set this up yourself if you want to. Otherwise, things just fall back to Arial, which looks just swell.

It’s labelled as a 0.1 theme, and it has its rough edges. But in the spirit of its big daddy, I thought I’d ship early and iterate. If it’s useful to you, or you find yourself making your own enhancements, do let me know. And of course, of you want a bit of help with tweaking and hosting, we’re more than happy to help with that too.

Download CommentariatGOVUK (zip, 571kb)

Merry Christmas!

Engagement on a shoestring

You could probably do more digital engagement around a series of stakeholder seminars, but it would be a tall order.

Comms Review site

For the last month or so, DCMS have been running a little site we helped build for them on our Read+Comment platform, to open up discussion around a series of seminars they’re running to inform the Department’s ongoing Communications Review. The Review is looking at strategic issues around use of spectrum, content and consumer value from the regulation of communication in the UK.

The site is typical of the kind of WordPress work we’re doing at the moment – flexible, low-cost, fast-turnaround, and designed to work nicely on mobile and in search.

But a few weeks on from launch, what Lizzie and colleagues at DCMS have done with it is a great example of smart digital communications on a budget. The fact is that in 2012 you don’t need to build a digital platform that can do everything; you just need a platform that doesn’t fence you in.

So the DCMS team have been:

  • embedding discussion documents and agendas using Scribd (who kindly removed advertisements from the account when we explained how it was being used)
  • uploading the presentations from the events to Slideshare, and embedding them
  • recording audio and video from the seminars, and making these easy to consume online via SoundCloud and YouTube
  • promoting discussion on the #commsreview hashtag (but sensibly, not embedding an unmoderated stream, just in case)
  • providing useful context, like lists of who attended, related news stories and so on
  • using (and attributing) Creative Commons images from Flickr to add a bit of visual colour
  • analysing traffic using Google Analytics (of course)

Virtually all of those services are free to use, and those that aren’t are priced at consumer-level prices, rather than the levels government is more used to paying. And though I’ve helped make a tweak here and there, Lizzie has been running the platform as she wants, thanks to the flexibility of WordPress (especially widgets, menus and WordPress’ support for embedded content), but more importantly, her own vision and skills. It’s the same story from friends and clients at the Department of Health, University Alliance, LGIU and Foreign Office, amongst many others.

Three cheers for shoestrings, and all who thrive on them.

Making WordPress accessible to AAA

eaccessibility forum

At Simon’s recent WordUp Whitehall event, I presented on the process I went through on a project with BIS/DCMS to create a discussion platform for the eAccessibility Forum. The site went live yesterday, thanks to the sterling efforts of the DCMS Digital Comms team and their WordPress-smart IT colleagues – with a press release from the minister, no less.

I’ve also contributed a post to the site which describes my journey from ‘not very much’ to ‘still pretty minimal’ knowledge:

The challenge with accessibility guidance is seeing the wood for the trees. As a developer, you need detail about specific colour contrast ratios for example, and suggestions of tools and code samples that might help you. But you also need to retain a sense of what the general principles are too – why accessibility rules are written the way they are, as well as whether or not a particular piece of code meets a checkpoint.

The key point from a developer’s point of view, as I made at WordUp, is that WordPress can be made as accessible as you need it to be – it’s just PHP, HTML and Javascript after all. And even for non-gurus like me, it’s doable.

Whitehall in WordPress

Simon Dickson introducing WordUp Whitehall 2

The clue was in the 150pt slide Simon put up at the start of the day, but actually I think he was just catalysing a conclusion most of the participants in Whitehall’s second WordUp event came to independently: we’re on the verge of a new era of Sharing.

12 months ago, only Number 10 and Defra were running WordPress-based corporate sites. Now the Departments of Health and Transport are too, accompanied by GCN, FCO, DCMS and old hands BIS and DFID all running significant WordPress projects. Whereas last year, just launching a WordPress site in government felt brave and radical, now it’s virtually mainstream – thanks in no small part to Simon’s blog and organisation of WordUps. The environment for WordPress in Whitehall is certainly benign, with the new open source procurement toolkit, and a man in charge who thinks the old ways are, well, unacceptable.

So we’re at a new, and quite challenging frontier now. Whereas a year or two ago, we sought permission to use this little blogging tool for serious things, now we’re asking ourselves how to make it do those serious things better. How to handle a library of 60,000 legacy PDF files, or structure content across a network of sites using an agreed classification. How to run a network of 50 bloggers more efficiently, or offer users great organisation-wide search. How to build vibrant social networks of government communicators, or create tools accessible to the highest standards.

And the answer to many of these is: it’s time to tackle these challenges as a community, just as the founders of the open source project we’re all using originally intended.

Two different perspectives today came from Pete Westwood, one of only 6 WordPress Lead Developers worldwide, who talked about the philosophy and management structure of the WordPress project; and Paul Gibbs, a Core Developer of BuddyPress, who shared his journey from hobbyist to open source project leader. Whereas the rest of us mainly talked about making WordPress jump through hoops, they presented it as a project – a community, and an often personal journey – rather than just software.

And that’s the challenge for WordPress in Whitehall: whether and how to become Whitehall in WordPress.

The plugins, themes, widgets and thinking on show today were impressive, but there’s clearly scope to help solve each others’ problems more quickly, effectively and cheaply by sharing what we’ve learned and created. And if the Whitehall community can benefit, why not the wider WordPress community which has provided us with the tools we use? Collaboration – through submitting bug reports and patches, writing reviews, rating plugins, contributing plugins, creating translations and documentation – is baked into the core of WordPress, and the tools to make it easy, like Trac and the Plugin Directory, are there waiting for our input. The White House has done it, albeit for Drupal.

But it’s not a no-brainer. Money and human resource are tight. Timescales in government are often challenging, and talented developers are in demand. On the outside, those who supply WordPress to government are often small agencies and freelancers themselves, with projects to finish and new business to win.

Contributing to open source projects takes time, patience and commitment. The benefits are often indirect. It’s hard to measure the satisfaction of seeing your code appreciated and reused, and it’s a visionary boss who recognises the value in spending paid time on it.

Of course government stands to save money through greater use of open source, and it’s great to hear repeated commitments to promote reuse across the public sector. But what would be truly visionary would be to embrace the ethos of open source itself and commit the time of civil servants and part of the budget of commissioned projects to giving back to the open source projects which made them possible. That’s what Simon was on about when he caused a bit of a stir.

Sharing code on your own site is a start, and using code-sharing platforms like Github is better, but let’s go the whole hog and contribute back to the projects themselves. I’m making that my early resolution for 2012.


A very British election

Just a quick post to flag a little site launched last month for a modest and little-known public figure, reported to be the first Briton to give £1bn to charitable causes, and the third longest-serving minister of the New Labour years.

David Sainsbury - Lord Sainsbury of Turville, Candidate for Chancellor of Cambridge University

Lord Sainsbury of Turville was nominated earlier this year to succeed Prince Phillip as Chancellor of Cambridge University. For the first time in over 160 years, this appointment has been contested, and he faces Brian Blessed, Michael Mansfield QC and a local shopkeeper, Abdul Arain in the election. Voting takes place this Friday and Saturday… but don’t reach for the Cambridge website. Eligibility to vote is quite restricted (to holders of Cambridge Masters degrees) and votes must be cast in person, in Cambridge. Wearing a gown. Few people are confident about predicting the outcome.

The site I built for him isn’t a campaign site in the traditional sense, though it does set out his approach to the Chancellorship and how he would fulfil the role. He’s been accused of being behind the times in terms of the sophisticated digital campaign waged by Brian Blessed in particular, though in fairness this isn’t a normal kind of political election for an executive role, nor the kind of contest you’d expect to see for one.

There’s a nice post from Cambridge Classics Professor Mary Beard, who has come round to supporting Lord Sainsbury, after initially considering the other candidates:

So what should the Chancellor be doing? Probably, if not a royal, rather more than Prince Philip could do, in his position. But it should be an enabling role, not a politically directive one. I am looking for someone who might help in opening up the space for us to discuss widely the role of the university and educational priorities with government, funding bodies, and the media — and who might help us get across our aims and policies better. Not someone who wants to tell us what those policies should be.

That is where Sainsbury’s brief nomination statement has got it much righter. He sees the duty of the chancellor as championing the university, not trying to guide its policy.

As it happens, when I talked to him, I found his views on many things (from access to RAE/REF) much much closer to my own than I had expected. And that is, if I’m honest, what adds a little enthusiasm to my vote. But it’s not what actually commits me to voting for the guy in the first place. The key thing, for me, is that he correctly sees what the ‘job’ of the chancellor is.

I’ve aimed to create something tasteful and flexible, starting from a brief to develop a site which takes a conventional Wikipedia page a little further. It’s WordPress-based of course, without any hugely radical innovation under the hood (though it has the distinction of being the first HTML5 template I’ve worked on, and my first significant use of Google’s Web Fonts). We’re running a small paid search campaign to route interested visitors efficiently, and using Feedburner as a very simple email alerting mechanism.

So I’m rooting for Lord S, who, from what I’ve read seems like the eminently sensible and capable choice for this role. And speaking as an Oxonian, the poor Tabs clearly need all the help they can get…

Professional doesn’t have to be boring

About 60% of my work these days is for the public sector, which is great, as it reflects my main experience and expertise, but which means 40% comes from elsewhere, which I find really helpful.

I’m not quite sure where the lead to rebuild ESP Consulting’s new site came from, except that old student union sorts seem to stick together. They’re a small, highly-experienced and specialist consultancy offering energy strategy, policy and risk management consulting. I’m ashamed to say I still couldn’t really tell you what that involves, but suffice to say it’s more like financial services than engineering and they probably can’t fix my broken boiler. But to people who need that sort of thing, at DECC and elsewhere, they’re the bees knees.

Their previous site was built in-house – with tremendous craftsmanship – but had become a little long in the tooth, used old school tables for layout, and couldn’t easily be maintained (someone tried once, to make it work better for public sector clients stuck on IE6, and it wasn’t a happy experience). Here’s what it looked like:

ESP - before

It’s not exactly a cartoons and flashing lights sector, so Soren and colleagues needed something sober and professional, and quite liked the muted, gimmick-free look and feel of their old site. The brief here, as with many of my clients, was to make the site easier to manage, bring it up to date but not scare the horses.

I thought there were three great opportunities here:

  1. Emphasise the experience and skills of the team, featuring them on the homepage to show the warm, professional, widely-experienced consultancy team they are
  2. Sort out SEO, taking on the challenge of being one amongst many ‘ESPs’ online, including several different types of consultancy, and sorting out an issue which saw only Soren’s profile page appearing on Google’s results page
  3. Bring out the service areas and case studies more clearly, to make it clearer what the company offers

If I make it sound like I brought all the ideas, that’s unfair. Soren and team were really the driving force here, and simply wanted help translating their vision into clean, flexible, no-nonsense reality. So here’s how it looks now:

ESP - after

The new site is WordPress-based, starting from the Twenty Ten theme framework, which meets the requirement for ease of updates. Even without being too clever, WordPress provided lots of useful pegs we could use to create the kind of simple CMS lots of businesses like ESP need:

  • team profiles are built from extended WordPress user profiles, adding fields for qualifications, descriptions, and an embedded geocoded map showing international experience
  • case studies are WordPress posts with a custom field to hold the client profile and judicious use of featured images to render logos at different sizes in different places on the site. The normal post navigation has been adapted to turn navigation between posts into a loop, rather than a chronological series
  • we’re using a perennial favourite, the Widget Logic plugin to handle showing different widgets from the same widget area in different places on the site
  • I wrote a few shortcodes too to help feature the list of users (consultants) on other pages

The ESP team know what they’re looking for, and sometimes, even how they’d like it laid out. We’ve discussed things amicably, come up with good ideas together, and made WordPress work in ways which are surprisingly elegant at times. It works in IE6, for public sector clients. The site’s now at least a place higher in Google for the same search term, and now ranks well for lots of other key terms too. In a niche sector not full of elegant websites, it feels to me (and I’m biased) like a more contemporary business, with credibility, professionalism and subtlety. Much, you might say, like the public sector…

A new website for Involve

One of the nice things about my new life is that I get to work with and for people from outside government, as well as those inside. Our latest non-gov project went live late last week, replacing the website for public engagement experts Involve with something cleaner, neater and more flexible.

Involve homepage

Simon, Involve’s director, had a number of issues with the previous site. It didn’t feature their core areas of work prominently, it hid search and newsletter signup away behind tiny buttons, it was expensive to tweak and – the biggie for any think tank-style organisation in 2011 – it constrained their ability to blog easily and prominently to engage their audience about their work.

The idea of migrating to WordPress (from the old site, which was SilverStripe-based) came from Involve, part of a growing trend of clients who’ve already been won over by the sales pitch for WordPress. For this kind of site, it’s absolutely the right tool, given the key goals we established:

  • reducing the costs of hosting and maintenance
  • improving usability, including a clearer explanation of what the organisation does and making it easier for prospective clients to get in touch
  • raising the profile of fresh content from the blog  and increasing the emphasis on Involve’s key areas of work

We helped clean up the site templates, retaining much of the original look and feel, which still felt contemporary and professional. As often happens, batting around some simple wireframes triggered some great discussions about content, priority and positioning. Here’s an early version:

involve homepage wireframe

Rebuilding the site presented a great opportunity to revisit the site’s information architecture, moving the blog to a more prominent position and humanising it with author biography panels, making navigation within sections more logical, as well as adding some quick wins like the little Twitter widget of Involvers talking about their work. Here’s the before and after homepage (click to enlarge):

Involve before+after

But the real power of WordPress for this project is through tags, enabling the Involve team to build sets of content on the site using tags as simple or complicated as they want to make them, whether it’s how they embed public engagement in government or the work they do which relates to the Big Society. It’s also handy to have flexible sidebar areas for widgets, so the team can promote major launches or events without making changes to their template.

We’ve not pushed WordPress particularly hard to achieve it, but the result is a site that feels like a proper corporate presence for an organisation which is about engagement, blending publishing and discussion, people and projects. We’ll see how things go over the coming months, but I hope the team will find WordPress snappier, easier to extend, and a real boon to their search engine positioning.