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

Reading Time: 2 minutes

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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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

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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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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Service landscape maps: seeing the bigger picture

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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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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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On alternatives

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This is for everyone

Tim Berners-Lee

As a content author myself – I am, actually writing this, with fingers – I know it can be hard to choose how to provide alternative text for non-text content.

Do you go full-on and launch into a full description of the image? Or is just a brief alt=”cat” sufficient?

Delicate white blossoms against blue sky.
Tree blossom

So, how would you choose to describe this image to someone who can’t see it?

I gave it a <caption>Tree blossom</caption>, and alt=”Delicate white tree blossom against a clear blue Spring sky”.

Is that perfect? Probably not.

I don’t pretend to understand the lived experience of people whose experience is not like mine.

Then I stumbled across this article on the w3c website.

And I thought, “this looks handy“.

And it is.

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The exporting experience: one year on

Reading Time: 5 minutes

At the end of March this year, my colleague Katie wrote a post about some work she had been involved with to improve the exporting user journey on scottish-enterprise.com.

She included some analytics data that seemed to indicate some significant improvements. But she only had 3 months’ worth of data, which makes it hard to draw any firm conclusions.

So we thought now, with a year’s worth of data, would be a good time to look back on what’s changed, what worked, and any opportunities for further improvement.

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How to create accessible Word documents

Reading Time: 7 minutes

First, some definitions

An accessible document is a document that people with a range of physical and cognitive impairments can read and understand.

An accessible document is, typically, also a document that people with no physical or cognitive impairments can read and understand better, and faster.

Also typically, an accessible document is easier for content authors to maintain. Because it uses tools that are baked in to Word and other MS Office applications to support accessibility and improve workflow.

So, here are some tips on creating accessible Word documents.

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How to deliver agile projects to a deadline

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You can’t.

Agile projects deliver when they cross a quality threshold.

If you hit a deadline, or met a budget, without crossing that threshold, you weren’t agile.

It’s that simple.

Measuring performance

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FindBusinessSupport.gov.scot launched as a public Beta on 22 January.

Measuring how our service is performing is very important. So is being transparent about that.

We’ve had analytics in place since day 1.

So here’s the numbers.

dashboard showing analytics for FBS from January to February, users, new users, page views, engagement, goal completions, refereeals to partners sites, conservion rate, device and browsers usages

A story is the promise of a conversation

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Illustration of how much we know about a user story over time.

In agile development the whole point of a story is … well, it’s a story.

It illustrates an instance. It illuminates an essence.

It tells a story.

There is a user. An actual person, who needs to get stuff done. A hero.

They probably need to get other stuff done too. This, whatever that is, is just one thing on their neverending to-do list.

Their reasons could be very simple or very complex.

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Preparing for Brexit

Reading Time: < 1 minuteI’ve been a small part of a team working on a new digital service to help Scottish businesses prepare for Brexit.

PrepareforBrexit.scot is an effort from all the agencies and organisations in Scotland’s public sector to help equip our businesses with the tools they’ll need to anticipate and deal with any shocks caused by the UK leaving the EU.

Mostly, my focus has been on analytics, helping colleagues newly drafted into that area to get on top of their game.

The site launched on 1 November. The data should become richer over time.

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You can do things, or you can get things done

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Imagine you work for an organisation where, on average, people have six things on the go at any given time.

Let's assume that, again on average, each of those things takes a week of your effort to get done.

Given that – and it doesn't feel too outrageous – we should be able to deliver a thing a week, shouldn't we?

But that doesn't seem to happen in real life. Why not?

Well, essentially, we have two choices: we can do things, or we can get things done.

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