Less than ninety days before it’s 4th birthday, as Dan pointed out, DotP is on its way out. Unlike Dan, I declined to mark the occasion by wearing a t-shirt, but I do think the moment is worth some reflection.
You may not be able to tell the difference between the old directgov and the new one. Here they are, if not side by side, then one above the other.
The one at the bottom is the new site, with a snapshot taken today, the old version is from 10th January. The change of platform, whilst neither here nor there in terms of design, marks the near culmination of a change of strategy agreed 30 months ago when it was decided not to invest further in DotP, the multi-site content management platform. Rather than harp on about the merits or otherwise of this decision, I thought I’d share a couple of fond memories from DotP’s early days.
Lesson 1: Always be clear about your requirements lest they be misunderstood
During the development stage, I was wandering through the offices of the lead delivery company, Sapient, and glanced over the shoulder of one of the developers. He was checking out some screen designs he’d just built. I noticed that the URL had a series of “║” embedded in the text. I asked him what they were doing there and he explained that they were “pipes”. I knew that, but I wanted to know what they’re doing there – I suspect they’re the rarest character in terms of usage on the keyboard of the average user. I told him that was no good, no one would be able to figure out how to type them. I wandered away.
Probably 6 months later, I was looking at the pre-launch version of ukonline.gov.uk (it wasn’t yet directgov) and I looked at the URLs again. They were practically 3 lines long – once you got past the home page. I don’t remember the exact comment but I imagine it was a string of expletives followed by a “get rid of those”. I was told that I’d asked for them to be that way “as I didn’t like pipes”. Not quite the way it happened but it seems that the conscientious developer had taken my advice not to use pipes and come up with a different way of handling URLs, but the result was 180 characters of URL per page.
I never again looked over the shoulder of a developer and made an arbitrary comment.
Lesson 2: When you’re right, you’re right, even when no-one agrees with you
One of the things that we decided to day with DotP, right from day one, was not to support inline links (e.g. click here). I don’t remember who made that decision, I do know it wasn’t me; when it was explained to me, I got it right away. We didn’t want inline links for a couple of main reasons
1) It creates a sight that is fundamentally difficult for a screen reader to navigate and we wanted to have the most accessible sites possible. I know that I use embedded links in this blog, but then again, this isn’t designed to be accessible.
2) When links break and need to be removed, whole chunks of text need to be rewritten. In fact, we created a tool that ensured that links internally within DotP (e.g. from directgov to department of health) never broke – if a page was deleted, we killed the link. If a page changed a chunk of content, we flagged up that it needed to be looked at in case the link no longer made sense. Links break all the time and we wanted to make the maintenance job as simple as possible, or even simpler. As it was, external links, surveyed by our external link checker often broke at the rate of a few dozen a day.
When we tried to explain this to other government departments, ie potential customers of our shiny new shared service, no-0ne got it. They didn’t want links to be at the bottom of a paragraph of text, they wanted them embedded in the text because they’d got used to doing it that way.
When we talked about accessibility, few were interested. When we talked about the page maintenance/broken link story, few seemed to get it. We tried all sorts of angles and, every single time that I remember, the final request was always whether we could change the system so that it would support inline links.
We tried this with businesslink, with HM customs, with Cabinet Office, with every department and the answer was always the same. The only exceptions were the folks in the Department of Health and those charged with launching the Child Trust Fund (although there’s another story about a giraffe there that should perhaps remain a dark secret for now).
Anyway, good luck to the new platform for direct.gov.uk. You’ve spent 30 months creating a site that is the same as the old one; I’m looking forward to seeing what new things can be done with the new service that couldn’t be done with the old one.