Manchester Council

I lead the UX design of the Manchester City Council site while I was working at Jadu and it remains the biggest web project I’ve worked on. I helped create wireframes and prototypes for early testing purposes and worked in close collaboration with the council’s digital team to turn them into the final (rather lovely) site.

It kinda shook things up for Local Gov site design too, spawned a few little, shall we say, homages from other sites, and generally made us all feel nice and fuzzy when it launched to some resounding praise (except from Hacker News, what a fucking shocker that was).

There were lots of super fun challenges to overcome, lots of presentations where I had to wear a suit and lots of awesome collaborations with the client. Anyone who moans about Government clients should call in to these guys because I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun with a client than this.

This was my first foray into applying end–to–end, user–focussed design to a very big site (with an absolute shit-tonne of legacy content) and it was quite daunting at first, but once I started scribbling, it was like any fun design project: lots of challenges, a diverse user base to please and shit-loads of data to inform decisions.

The goals

Primarily, we had to get information and services to Manchester’s fine citizens across a truly expansive range of categories. We determined what the most common tasks were that users were performing based on analytics and started working on a hierarchy. It was obvious from the get-go that this wasn’t a typical 5-page marketing site. Thousands of pages of content, forms and service integrations across hundreds of categories needed to be prioritised for users.

The key goals here were to present the most-used, most-important actions to users in a lovely, engaging way; while still keeping in mind the journey to the depths of less-common areas. We carried out an extensive analysis of the most common actions, allowing for some spikes based on time of year (tax season is fun…) and created user scenarios based on these actions. These user scenarios informed the rest of the project and were a great resource.

From there, I produced wireframes in the form of interactive prototypes that allowed everyone involved in the project to get an idea of how the site might work. The wireframes were a far cry from the usual approach to Government sites, especially the homepage (which is essentailly a fucking huge navigation menu), but giving people something to play around with early on softened the blow.

Inner pages needed to communicate their key points succinctly, get information to users without any surrounding bullshit. We referenced the GOV.UK guidelines a lot for this, an awesome resource for anyone who makes content–heavy sites. A number of tempaltes were created for specific types of content, designed to get information to the user in a logical format, without asking them to wade through pages and pages of useless information (another common theme in many Government sites, especially those with legacy content). A client with an awesome grasp of applying content strategy really helped this along.

After lots of productive back-and-forth, things fell into place, the interaction design work started alongside the visual design and the new site came together rather nicely.

What I Learned

User Scenarios Save Lives

User journeys allowed us to attach emotional, human personas to cold, hard data. Instead of ‘the 6.4% of users who use IE9 on Windows 7 and want to find out more about their council tax’ we have Maureen the lovely old lady who’s just moved closer to her grandkids so she can overfeed them on ALDI chocolate digestives. When you’re familiar with these characters you create, you empathise with potential users; you stop giving bullshit, personal opinions and query how it affects these imaginary friends of yours. Well-written user scenarios feed in to every single decision you make.

Yay for prototypes

This was the first project I produced properly interactive prototypes for and I’ve done it for everything I’ve made since. Being able to carry on with my role in the project while others carried on with theirs was liberating. It also allowed me to get working, interactive user flows in front of the client at a very early stage, which meant there was no bullshit ‘Big Reveal’ that everyone hates and communication was almost constant.

Government clients aren’t shit

I hear, all the time, about how bad Government clients can be. I think that’s bullshit and says more about the agency/designer’s approach to their clients than anything else. With a bit of education and an invitation to the early stages of a project, Government clients are as good as any other.

Hacker News is Hilarious

When the site launched, it found it’s way to the top of the Internet’s favourite basement. I learned that Hacker News is in fact absolutely full to the brim with professional designers who know a lot more than everyone in the world, provide fantastic constructive feedback and absolutely hilarious, witty insults to keep everyone grounded and aware of their own failings. Not that I’m bitter or anything…

Note: This was a long, massive project with lots and lots of people involved. I played a big part in its production but my colleagues at Jadu (who now maintain the site) and everyone I worked with in Manchester were absolutely awesome. This project wouldn’t have been half as good without that collaboration and I need to give huge credit to them all. Smooches x

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