Knowledge Hub: A response.

My colleague Dave Briggs has posted an interesting challenge about the Knowledge Hub – the new community platform for local government – questioning whether it is reaching the parts that the legacy platform used to reach and particularly its relative lack of activity and fairly laboured user experience.

I wasn’t too sure whether or not I should contribute to the discussion, given that I probably have more insight on the history of this project than most people, and as the lead consultant and architect for the project over two years until October 2011, I’m party to some information that I can’t (or shouldn’t) make public.

However, in the light of the comments and feedback I’ve seen on Dave’s original post, I feel compelled to correct a few assumptions.

The original thinking and concept for the Knowledge Hub, which I articulated in a Knowledge Management Strategy paper I was commissioned to produce in 2008 for the Improvement & Development Agency (IDeA, now part of the LGA), was to leverage emerging social web technologies to provide better opportunities for collaboration across local government, encourage innovation and break down the silo’d working practices that were becoming prevalent on the legacy CoP platform.

The fundamental design concept was to map every user’s social graph (people and relationships) against their interest graph (the topics and themes they followed, e.g. housing, environment, planning etc.). I wasn’t to know it at the time, but this is precisely the thinking behind Google+ and specifically Google+ Circles.

Of course, each person’s social and information graph could span both internal (to Knowledge Hub) and external (the web) environments. Consequently the design incorporated facilities to link to conversations happening on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, together with external blogs and RSS feeds. The aggregated feeds would be stitched together using a ‘filterable’ activity stream that included internal (Knowledge Hub) conversations. The user would then see relevant information (i.e. people and topics they had chosen to follow) coming to them rather than having to go out and find it.

Since all content would be tagged (some automatically), aggregated streams would show topics that were trending (similar to what Twitter has recently released as Tailored Trends), thereby helping to manage the information torrent. The system would also support powerful semantic search across all of this content.

The original specification also included support for the development of mobile and web apps, using tools that would enable non-technical users to create these apps, similar to the facilities provided by iBuildApp, but specific to local government data and services.

I noted that one comment referred to local government still being wedded to long and confusing email chains. This was also a consideration in the original design specification, and a feature was included to enable blogging direct from email, i.e. the user didn’t have to learn to use any new tools to create a blog post – they could do it all from their email account.

An important point to note was that the community of practice facilities (as currently being debated on Dave Briggs’ blog) were meant to be a step on the way, and not an end in itself, which is what I think the Knowledge Hub has become. The unfortunate conjunction of original concepts and vastly cut-down capabilities (per the original specification) has resulted in a just-about-adequate user interface (UI), but a fairly hostile user experience (UX). If you’re not sure about the difference between UI and UX, check this blog I posted a while back.

To my mind, this is proving to be the biggest drag on user engagement and activity. Knowledge Hub is a complex system, but a good UX design will ensure this complexity is hidden, and that navigation and actions become intuitive. This can be achieved by being aware at all times about what a user is trying to achieve (e.g. filing a document, writing a blog) and ensuring that:

  • links and sign-posting are contextually relevant
  • each process has a logical flow
  • there are no dead ends
  • action links are defined by verbs (e.g. write a blog, file a document)

If experienced social network/social media users like me, or Dave Briggs, find the environment a little confusing, I can only sympathise with users who are only just starting to embrace the world of the social web.

Since I doubt there will be any major changes made to the UI or UX, the effort falls on the Knowledge Hub support team and community facilitators to ensure that users understand how to get the best out of the system. And this will be hard work.

Going forward, I would encourage the LGA think about re-convening the Knowledge Hub Advisory Group. These were highly experienced knowledge, information and data professionals who helped me to shape the original specification and acted as critical friends throughout the procurement, architecture and design stages. They were disbanded when I left the project and all subsequent strategic design decisions were folded into a small in-house project team. A case of  “none of us are as smart as all of us” perhaps!

I hope I’ve gone some way to setting the record straight on what Knowledge Hub was meant to be. Community of practice facilities were just a small part of a much bigger idea, sadly not realised.

Other blogs in this sequence:

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