One of the common elements you will find across mySociety’s sites is that they have features designed to reduce duplicate messages or reports being sent to politicians, governments or companies. We often do this in quite a subtle way, so it is worth spelling out here how we do this across several sites:
- If you start to report a broken street light or pothole on FixMyStreet, you’ll see local problems before you start to type in your own details. This means if the problem is already there, you can see before you waste any effort.
- If you use WhatDoTheyKnow to send a Freedom of Information request to a public body, we provide a facility which encourages users to search through other people’s requests before they type their new request in.
- If the 08:10 train you take to work is always late, when you go to report it on FixMyTransport, we show you all the other problems already reported on that route. If someone else has already set up a page, you can press the big green ’join’ button, and show your support.
- If more than a handful of people try to use WriteToThem to send an exact duplicate of the same message to a politician, it will prevent it. This is because we know that politicians listen much, much more to individual messages from constituents than bulk mails.
This pattern – trying to intervene before people write identical messages or reports – is a design decision that makes a big difference to the way these sites operate. As usual with mySociety sites, this little feature seems like the sort of thing that would be quite tempting to skip when building a copy. But it really matters to the long term success of the sites. There are three reasons why.
First, there is a simple public benefit that comes from saving time. There’s no point us wasting your time if a report or request has already been sent, especially around minor issues. Saving your users time makes them happier and more likely to enjoy their experience.
Second, if you can spot that someone is about to send a duplicate message, we may be able to encourage that user to support the existing report instead of making a new one. For example, on FixMyStreet you can add an update to an existing pothole report (“it’s getting worse!”).
This feature is most visible, and most mature, on FixMyTransport, where users are clearly encouraged to ‘support’ pre-existing reports, rather than making new copies. By discouraging duplicate reports, we let people with a shared problem work together, even if this only means adding themselves as a “supporter” and doing nothing else. We know that many people search for, and find, problem reports which have turned into these little campaigns, which they then join and help. So even if they are only reading them (not joining them) that exposure can have some value to the people affected. This would be diluted if we created lots of similar reports about the same problem.
Third, we discourage duplicates for the benefit of the governments and companies receiving messages. We don’t think FixMyStreet is effective because it lets people moan: we think it’s effective because it helps local government to be effective by giving them good quality reports about local problems, in formats that area easy to handle. This good quality reporting increases the chance that the government will understand the problem and act on it, which leads to our main goal – citizen empowerment. Recipients are unlikely to help users if many of the messages they get are confused, inaccurate or duplicates, so we work on all these fronts.
So if you haven’t thought about this before, notice how the “work flow” through our sites makes you see similar problems before you’ve finished reporting your own. This is the implicit way to prevent duplication. We don’t have “Stop! Warning! Check this is a new problem!” messages, because we never want to discourage genuine users. But the careful design of the interface gently discourages, successfully, duplicate reports, and encourages supporting of other items.
It’s never possible to entirely prevent duplication. But we try hard, because it’s always better to join people together around common causes, than it is to let them struggle alone.
When you report a problem on FixMyStreet.com, the site displays a map for you to click on to indicate its exact location. Of course, you can zoom in and out of that map, but when it is first displayed, FixMyStreet needs to use an initial ‘default’ zoom level. Ideally, this is a zoom level that reduces the number of clicks required before a user can pinpoint the location of their problem.
And here’s where we encounter a tricky problem. The world is a varied place – some towns are very dense with buildings and streets crammed close together. In these areas you need to default to a zoom that’s quite ‘close in’, otherwise it can be hard to locate your problem.
But out in the countryside, we have the opposite problem. You can have huge areas where there’s nothing but blank fields or moorlands. If the default map zoom is ‘close in’ here then users are likely to see a big map full of nothingness, or maybe just a single stretch of unidentifiable road.
So, what is to be done?
The answer is this – every time you search for a location in FixMyStreet the website does a check to see whether the location you typed is in an area where a lot of people live, or very few people live.
mySociety has been storing this population density data in a webservice which we call Gaze. If the area you searched for is in a densely populated area we assume that it must be an urban location, and the map starts with a helpfully zoomed-in map. But if you’re in a sparsely populated area then it’s probably rural, so FixMyStreet starts zoomed out, making it easier to get an overview of the whole area.
Where do we get the data from? Our late colleague Chris discusses this in a blog post from 2005 — the short answer is NASA SEDAC and LandScan. It’s an interesting example of how unexpected things can happen when data is made public — if population density wasn’t available to us, we wouldn’t have been able to put this small but clever detail into FixMyStreet’s interface.
If you’re building any civic or democratic website, we know that you’ll want to make its homepage beautiful and unique. After all, you want to make a good impression on your users, and first impressions are the ones that count.
Go ahead! Dive in and make it special… but also take our advice and don’t burn all your energy on building a perfect homepage. The reason why is that many of your users will come to your site without ever seeing your homepage.
The main reason for this is the influence of search engines, Twitter and Facebook. These have already changed users’ behaviour during the short history of the World Wide Web: there was a time when people could be expected to start on the front of your site and work inwards, clicking on the links you provided, step by step. But several things now work against this: search engine results link to pages deep within your website; links are easily and routinely shared (email, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, even QR codes); and people are becoming accustomed to simple URLs that they might compose by hand, such as mysociety.org/contact. Realistically you must expect a user’s first page to be any* page on your website.
This means that, on every page except the homepage, your users may have arrived without any context or history — and, importantly, without the benefit of all the fabulous design time you’ve put into that glorious homepage.
Spend some time thinking about how you are treating those people. Imagine they’ve been teleported into a strange land; they know, roughly, what planet they’re on, but otherwise it’s all new to them. That’s how bewildering this could be to a user who’s clicked on a link that drops them deep into your website. It’s a common experience and it’s easy to get right, but if you get it wrong, they will just as easily teleport out again. And they will think: “that is not somewhere I want to visit again.”
None of this is very radical. But the point is that it’s very easy to overlook — especially because, if you’re one of the developers working on a site, you already know too much about how it works to be objective when you look at what you’ve made.
Here are some things you should consider:
- Do your pages instantly say what they’re for? A new user landing on an unfamiliar page will grope for some explanation – “This is a page about a politician”, or “This is a page about problems in this street”. You need to make sure you spell it out somewhere easy to see.
- Can the user easily take an action from this page? If the user was looking for more than just a quick hit of information, the chances are that they want to get something done. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that, just because they’ve landed on this page, this is the page where they want to be. For example, if you look at any one problem report on FixMyStreet and you will find a big “Report a problem” link in yellow at the top of the page.
So you should of course create a beautiful, functional homepage, but you should never forget that almost every page on your website will be a homepage for someone.
One of the democratic software tools mySociety has built is an online petitions tool for use by governments. We built the first version for the British Prime Minister’s office, and now it is used by a variety of British local governments.
When a user wants to make a new petition, they fill in a web form, containing the petition details.
During this process, a user must choose when they want their petition to end.
The question we are exploring today is this: what’s the best way to ask for that information?
From a developer’s point of view, the end of a petition is obviously a date. This is because the petition software really needs to test whether or not today’s date comes after the petition’s end-date. So an easy — and accessible — way to ask for this data would be as a
date input, which could even helpfully trigger a calendar pop-up menu or similar widget.
But we don’t do it like that, for a couple of reasons, both of which you might miss if you were to build this from scratch. Instead, we ask:
For how long would you like your petition to accept signatures? (e.g., “1 month”; maximum 1 year)
That’s not a date input. But why?
The first reason is that the user is thinking about running a petition as something they plan to do for a period of time. Put simply, if you’re asked about your next holiday, you’ll probably imagine what you’ll be doing (“I’m going to spend two weeks lying on the beach”) rather than the end of it (“I’m going to stop lying on the beach on the 25th of August”).
In terms of interface design, this means that users will tend to think about how long something lasts differently than from how a computer or a coder will tend to think about it. The general rule is: even for something as simple as this little web form, if it’s possible to create an interface that matches the way that a user thinks about the world, then it will be less confusing for them than one that does not. Usually this means the system has to be a bit more complicated to program, in order to convert what the user types to what the computer needs.
The second reason that we ask for a duration, not a date, is that in the case of the petition, the user doesn’t actually know when their petition is going to start. Although they’re entering it into the website right now, there will nearly always be a delay before the government approves it. So most of the time, by asking for a duration, we’re avoiding raising this issue at all, and the user simply says what they mean, and it works. A petition with a duration of “3 months” will run for three months, once it goes live. A date wouldn’t survive an unspecified delay like that.
So, we ask for a duration and parse the result to turn it into a date when it goes live… but there’s an extra twist. What if the user really does know the date their petition must end? Maybe it’s a petition about closing the main road for a New Year’s Party, and it’s got to be discussed at the council meeting that’s being held on the 5th of December. Well — OK! If the user puts a date into the duration field, even though we didn’t ask for a date… we accept it. We can do some validation to make sure it’s a sensible date, of course, but basically if someone does puts a date in there, then that’s fine too.
What we hope this has shown you is that even something as simple as asking a user for an end date can be done easily (just use a date input there) or thoughtfully. The system wouldn’t break if we did it the other way. But making things as convenient as this means that we are allowing users to focus on the thing we’re trying to let them do, instead of drawing attention to how we are making them do it.
Simple things are the most easily overlooked. Two examples: a magician taking a wand out of his pocket (see? so simple that maybe you’ve never thought about why it wasn’t on the table at the start), or the home page on www.fixmystreet.com.
The first thing FixMyStreet asks for is a location. That’s so simple most people don’t think about it; but it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, a lot of services like this would begin with a login form (“who are you?”) or a problem form (“what’s the problem you want to report?”). Well, we do it this way because we’ve learned from years of experience, experiment and, yes, mistakes.
We start off by giving you, the user, an easy problem (“where are you?”) that doesn’t offer any barrier to entry. Obviously, we’re very generous as to how you can describe that location (although that’s a different topic for another blog post). The point is we’re not asking for accuracy, since as soon as we have the location we will show you a map, on which you can almost literally pinpoint the position of your problem (for example, a pothole). Pretty much everyone can get through that first stage — and this is important if we want people to use the service.
How important? Well, we know that when building a site like FixMyStreet, it’s easy to forget that nobody in the world really needs to report a pothole. They want to, certainly, but they don’t need to. If we make it hard for them, if we make it annoying, or difficult, or intrusive, then they’ll simply give up. Not only does that pothole not get reported, but those users probably won’t bother to try to use FixMyStreet ever again.
So, before you know it, by keeping it simple at the start, we’ve got your journey under way — you’re “in”, the site’s already helping you. It’s showing you a map (a pretty map, actually) of where your problem is. Of course we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to use that map (and, yes, we also let you skip it if for some reason a map doesn’t help you). You see other problems, already reported (maybe you’ll notice that your pothole is already there — and we haven’t wasted any of your time making you tell us about it, even though you probably didn’t realise we intended right from the start to show you other people’s problems before you reported your own). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we now know which jurisdictions are responsible for the specific area, so the drop-down menu of categories you’re about to be invited to pick from will already be relevant for the council departments (for example) that your report will be going to.
And note that we still haven’t asked you who you are. We do need to know — we send your name and contact details to the council as part of your report — but you didn’t come to FixMyStreet to tell us who you are, you came first and foremost to report the problem. So we focus on the reporting, and when that is all done then, finally, we can do the identity checks.
Of course there’s a lot more to it than this, and it’s not just civic sites like ours that use such techniques (most modern commerce sites have realised the value of making it very easy to take your order before any other processing; many governmental websites have not). But we wanted to show you that if you want to build sites that people use, you should be as clever as a magician, and the secret to that is often keeping it simple — deceptively simple — on the outside.