Card sorting to improve information architecture 

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Ahead of our migration of the Scottish Enterprise website to our new design system, the User Experience (UX) team wanted to make some improvements to the information architecture of the site.

First of all, what do we mean by information architecture?

Information architecture, or IA, can mean different things to different people. To some it’s the sitemap, to others it’s the main navigation, to others something more abstract. 

According to the UX experts at Nielsen Norman, information architecture is both a noun and a verb, referring to both:

 “The practice of deciding how to organize and maintain your content, what the relationships are between each piece of content, and how content is visibly displayed on your website’s navigation” 

and also

 “The website’s structure, its organization, and the nomenclature of its navigation elements. The website’s IA refers to how information is organized, structured, and presented on that website.”

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Joining the dots from intent to outcome

An intent to outcome diagram for the findbusinesssupport.gov.scot
Reading Time: 3 minutes

As a service designer, a large part of my job is making sure everyone on the project sees and understands the same picture.

We all need to have a shared understanding of:

  • why we’re here
  • what we’re trying to do
  • the outcomes (changes in the real world) we want to see

That sounds easy, but in reality it’s not. Everyone has their own perspective: designers, developers, content designers, architects, security people, product owners … everybody comes at the problem with their own priorities and experiences, their own preferences, language, biases and assumptions.

We can have hours of discussions and endless workshops to thrash these conflicting worldviews and languages out. Thousands of unmourned post-its may be lost in the process.

So one day, back in 2019, when I was working on the very early days of findbusinesssupport.gov.scot I decided we needed an authoritative way to describe and demonstrate our purpose.

In my experience at that time, it really helps to have a big reminder of “this is why you’re here” every time you enter the workplace. (It was ‘real’ then, it’s (mostly) virtual now.)

So I came up with this:

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On calculating carbon

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I had an interesting conversation today with a couple of colleagues from VisitScotland. They had come across our web estate carbon calculator, and were interested in replicating our approach.

Screenshot of a dashboard showing estimated carbon emissions for 3 websites run by Scottish Enterprise.

I had already indicated in the response to the invitation that I had reservations about how useful this approach is. So it was an interesting chat.

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Operating in the open

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I’m not actively involved with the findbusinesssupport.gov.scot team any more. But it’s still a service close to my heart.

I was part of the team that designed and built it in the midst of a global pandemic. And which suddenly learned, unwarned, that we would be the primary vehicle for the Scottish Government’s response to the emergency for businesses.

We were still in Beta in March 2020, so we were just routinely publishing all the data we had about usage. But, as we – de facto, if not officially – became a production service due to necessity, we just continued to do so.

Screenshot of search and filter data from findbusinesssupport.gov.scot from Sep-Oct 2023.
Screenshot of search and filter data from findbusinesssupport.gov.scot from Sep-Oct 2023
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Involving everyone in the research process

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To get best results you need to take all your project team with you.

Sometimes the most difficult part of the research process can be getting full buy-in from the project team. This can be especially true when the team have strong opinions on what needs to be done and the research is contradicting this. This can lead to conflict and the validity of the research being questioned. However, there are ways to bring the project team with you and get their buy-in and support at every stage of a project. Let’s explore these.

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WCAG 2.2

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WCAG 2.2 is now a standard.

That means it’s (probably) now the de facto default against which your website or apps will be judged if a case is brought against you.

Although I would guess most jurisdictions will give you 6-12 months to catch up, depending on the scope of your organisation.

Update your accessibility statements, if you need to. Basic standards are still:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandanle
  • Robust

Under the hood, not much has changed. Biggest updates are on :focus styles, and the visibility of focused elements. Oh, and authentication. Not being able to rely on cognitive challenges is going to be a big change for many organisations.

On twitter

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A screenshot of my Twitter account on 6 October 2023

I rarely use twitter (I refuse Musk’s nomenclature) any more. There are more than enough fascists in real life.

But I saw some posts on Mastodon about how the site has removed headlines from links to news sites. So thought I’d have a look.

The #a11y implications are terrible. There is no link text any more, just an aria-label attribute on an <a> element.

But these also have tabindex=”-1″ meaning, for keyboard users, you can’t focus links using the tab key.

Images have empty alt attributes.

Screenreader users can probably still find them by asking their AT for a list of links.

But many people navigate websites primarily with a keyboard for reasons other than blindness or low vision.

Although this was … not unexpected … it’s still just so disappointing. Twitter had a very good and very active accessibility team who did a lot of good work. They were all fired.

Twitter is degrading its #UX –intentionally – to fulfil the whims of an oligarch.

I’ll not be back.

Joining the Federation

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The Federation log from the original Star Trek

I’ve updated this blog to use the ActivityPub protocol.

ActivityPub is the decentralized networking protocol that powers social networks including Mastodon, NextCloud and PixelFed.

If you are a user on any of these platforms, you can follow this blog at @blog@design.scotentblog.co.uk

Reducing carbon emissions from our websites

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Why we are measuring our digital carbon emissions

All online activity generates carbon emissions. Every image downloaded, every click, server call and visit to our site. These types of interactions generate Scope 3 emissions. Lowering these emissions helps Scottish Enterprise towards achieving our Net Zero targets. And, for our users, the user experience is improved, along with SEO, because pages load faster and they use less data interacting with our sites.

Screenshot showing a snapshot of the Beacon report.
Beacon calculation of the SDI home page
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Providing text alternatives for non-text content

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I recently ran a session with some of our content developers covering alternative text, and the difference between alt text and captions. It seemed to be well received, so I thought I’d write it up.

A screenshot of HTML code showing markup for a <picture> element
Modern web design includes a variety of techniques to provide text alternatives for non-text content. In this example, a <figcaption> provides additional context,

“Text alternatives” is the first guideline of the first principle of WCAG 2.1. It’s literally the first thing to think about – and the reason why is pretty simple: not everyone can see images.

That may be because they have a vision disability. But it could also be because the image has been deleted, renamed or moved. Maybe their network connection is poor. Or their browser doesn’t support the format. Or they have disabled images in their email client because they have a 500MB monthly limit.

Whatever. It happens. Text alternatives are what users rely on when images are not available. Like this one right here:

This image is not available

The alternate text needs to replace the image. So your question becomes very definite:

What text do I need to provide if this image is not available? How might I describe the appearance, purpose, function, or meaning of this image to someone who can’t access it?

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Migrating our first site to the Scottish Enterprise Design System

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the run-up to January 2023 we migrated our first site  – SDI.co.uk – to our new Design System.

Screenshot of the new SDI home page.
SDI website

Just under 3 years of research, design, build and, finally, the migration of content from the old site to the new site. This is a huge milestone in the development and success of our future websites for Scottish Enterprise.

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The Pitch

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Polish your elevator pitch because it is more needed today than ever before.

How often do you talk to peers who just can’t tell you what their project exists to do. They can only tell you what they do on the project.

A friend of mine took on a new role at a finance company. When he started there were 40,000 defects in Jira.

When he left 2 years later….there were 40,000 defects in Jira..

He couldn’t tell what his project actually did.

So what was their team actually meant to do?

If you don’t know the Pitch then why is your company funding your project?

A good pitch is a way of telling your story that rolls together:

  • Problem statements
  • Solution Statements
  • A Hypothesis
  • Future state/vision

It does this in a No-Nonsense, Plain English manner.

So how do I create this magical Pitch you speak of

There are lots of ways to create a Pitch, but one that has never failed me in workshops is the Pixar Pitch. This is the structure that ALL Pixar movies use and to date they have raked in over 15 BILLION DOLLARS. So obviously not a bad approach to story telling.

The key elements are:

  • Once upon a time (This is the context)
  • Every Day (This is the problem)
  • One Day (This is the solution)
  • Because of that (This is the outcome)
  • Until Finally (This is the future state)

I use a fun Pitch Canvas that looks like this:

Pitch Canvas
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Running an asynchronous retrospective

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The good, the bad, and the ugly

I seem to have been running a lot of retrospectives lately. And yes, I just used an Oxford comma. Get over it.

A simple, childlike image of a sailing boat on a choppy sea. The boat is held by an anchor hooked on rocks beneath the waves. There are wind puffs behind it and rocks in front of it. To the right of the images an island with a palm tree, with the sun overhead.
In the sailboat retrospective format, the boat represents the project or work we are doing; the wind is what is pushing us forward, the anchor what is holding us back. The rocks are dangers/risks we face, and the island is the goal or destination. I created this template in Miro.

In case you don’t know what that means, a retrospective (or a ‘retro’ for short) is a meeting-come-workshop where you look back on work you’ve done, as a team, and try to identify ways you could be better in future.

In agile methodologies, you can hold retros pretty regularly. With Scrum, you’d hold one at the end of every sprint – typically every 2 weeks – so you can get feedback quickly and adjust course immediately.

Think guiding a canoe through rapids; if you can’t change course quickly, you are going to hit a rock (a fairly common metaphor for retros uses a sailboat, as above) pretty soon, and pretty fatally.

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Taking time to reflect

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It started with a leadership course 14 years ago. It ended with a leadership course 1 year ago.

Somewhere in between I have spent almost 14 years working with the most talented, passionate people, and now my last day at Scottish Enterprise (SE) approaches.

It’s been the best of times, seeing what small teams of committed people can bring to work and to their relationships. It’s also been the most frustrating of times too. I can’t help but marvel at how I spent 3 years trying to move us over to digital signatures, but to no avail. Then Covid hit and boom, it happened. When the risk is high, politics is low.

But my time in SE isn’t just the last two very challenging years. It’s much wider than that and I’ve been reflecting on some of the things that cut through everything I’ve done. There are many but I’m going with just three things.

Reflection is critical to self development.
 This image shows Angus my border collie taking time to look at his own reflection in a lake.
Time to reflect
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The Scottish Enterprise recruitment experience – from recruiting manager to applicant

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The SE recruitment experience

Applying for a job seems simple enough, right? Set out your own expectations on a job and employer, find something that meets your expectation and apply! However, in the 6 months I have spent with the service design team at Scottish Enterprise (pretty new right!) I have learned that very few things are as simple as we say or think.

Following several queries and concerns relating to our Current vacancies page on Scottish-enterprise.com, the team kicked off a project to research, understand and act on the needs of our customers (potential applicants) and colleagues (those involved in recruitment).

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Service landscape maps: seeing the bigger picture

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This is a service landscape map.

A service landscape map -click the link for full-size version.
Service landscape maps depict the different stages users go through when accessing a service as connected blobs, with the activities they do as circles within those blobs. It also captures who the external users are – the end users of the service and those who act in their support – the things users do to achieve their goals, the teams of people who deliver the service and are granted some power or authority within the system, and supporting organisations that also have a role to play in meeting user needs.

Services rarely, if ever, exist in a void. They exist within a context. A landscape.

Service landscape maps capture and illustrate that wider context and allow us to see the complexity at play, and to develop a better understanding of the user’s whole experience.

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How are businesses thinking about business purpose in a changing world?

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I wanted to find out if, and to what extent, Scottish businesses are purpose led. As part of this process we wanted to explore businesses’ attitudes and actions towards Net Zero and Fair work initiatives

As a user researcher working at Scottish Enterprise, I joined with my colleagues in strategy to explore this in more depth and to provide insight to help shape the organisation’s approach going forward

Working with the strategy team was a really positive and enjoyable experience. We worked very closely together to clarify the objectives and desired outcomes of the project and the strategy team were involved at every stage.

Companies and consumers both have a part to play to create more sustainable economies which help people to flourish.

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10 things that staff consistently tell us

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  • When we do user research with businesses about our Services, we also talk to our staff that are delivering them.
  • Just like customers, we often hear the same things from staff, over and over again, regardless of which design, platform or web page we’re testing.
  • These issues are not aimed upwards at management, but represent the lived reality of everyone in the organisation, and are there for all of us to fix
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Measuring our carbon output

Screenshot of our website carbon calculator
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The carbon costs of “digital” are not well understood.

How many emails have you received with “Consider the environment before printing this email” in the signature?

How many have you received with “Consider the environment before hitting Reply All to 26 random people” and adding “Thanks”?

For many people, “virtual” means “not real”.

As in, almost literally, non-existent.

Terms like “cloud” don’t help.

The reality is, the internet is the biggest machine humanity has ever built. It circles the entire planet.

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The places and people we remember

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What do we take from those we have worked for, and with? What do we take from each role we do into the next?

I’ve blogged before about my career journey. The best of times has been when I’ve worked for someone who has understood me as a whole person and believed in me. Here’s some thoughts about my journey over 35 years

An image of my tricolour border collie called Angus lying in some bluebells
My whole me now includes Angus. Here he is in the bluebells
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