Essex Activities is a magnificent website that arose from a client’s open brief and painstaking user research to find out what their audience wanted.
I was contracted by Essex County Council’s Digital Channels Programme, a cell of innovation in a huge council, dedicated to creating top-notch digital services. As Delivery Manager, I led on Content Strategy and User Research. We used Agile (Lean and Scrum) and the Government Digital Service (GDS) design principles.
The content strategy challenge
The client approached my team with a free brief: an online resource to reduce social isolation by making it easier for residents to find out about local activities.
When I explained the Agile methology and GDS design principles, the client was keen to follow the approach, starting with people who would potentially use the service, designing around their needs and testing regularly along the way.
User research workshops
We began with event organisers and members of the public in the historic port town of Harwich. After initial desk research, we met the group and explained the problem we hoped to address.
Some key findings were:
- They were already familiar several activity websites, but found these lacking in many ways.
- Although they used Facebook to find out about new activities, they felt it was only useful if you already knew what you were looking for.
- They identified clutter as a major problem on activity websites.
- They weren’t interested in travelling far, so activities ‘nearest me’ was their most important search criteria.
- Those who organised activities felt the process for uploading events on the websites they used was too complicated. They needed something fast and simple.
- They were suspicious of websites that asked for seemingly unnecessary personal information.
- Few sites offered the ability to list activities that occurred regularly, such as “first and third Thursday of the month”.
With this group, we created user personas and wrote and prioritised user stories.
We chose the name Essex Activities after I suggested we review popular organic search terms. With little marketing budget, it would help to use words that were already in people’s minds.
To get ahead with marketing, I recommended the client start Facebook and Twitter feeds and begin posting about local activities to build a following while we developed the site.
Based on the user stories, the programmers began working on code and I briefed a design agency on the look and feel.
As soon as we had a working prototype, we brought in a new group of users to test. Conducting research always impacts subjects in some way, making them ‘warm’ to ideas. For this reason, I insist on refreshing user groups regularly to get a true fresh set of eyes.
Observing these users, we identified what was working well, some ‘sticking points’ in coding and design, and language that needed review.
Our client wanted the website to be as self-managing as possible. One clever feature that emerged as a result was homepage headers that change automatically to reflect the season and approaching holidays.
‘Soft launch’ meant the site’s user base could grow organically while my team observed their behaviour through Google Analytics, identifying and fixing problems. One thing we noted was a significant number of activity uploaders dropping out at the point of choosing a photo to go with their activity. Reviewing the types of activities that were uploaded, some just didn’t fit with the available photos. Adding more photo options, and the ability to search photos, helped reduce the problem.
After a few snags getting Google to reliably index the site, it settled into first place for ‘Essex Activities’ and many other target search terms. With 50 to 150 current activities and thousands of monthly visits, Essex Activities became a showpiece within the Council for what could be achieved through Agile, user-centred design and GDS principles.
I really enjoyed working on this project, because our methodology meant we knew we were making something that would be a valuable community resource.
Use my services
If you’re looking for a copywriter or content strategist to work on an Agile project, it’d be great to hear from you.