I thought it was probably about time to post an update about the Knowledge Hub; I’ve had my head under the bonnet of the technology for longer than I had intended and given the proximity of the Beta release in April this year I should probably surface for air and reorientation.
Given it’s been a couple of months since I last posted on this topic, a quick recap on what this is all about:
The concept for the Knowledge Hub surfaced as part of a 3-year Knowledge Management Strategy I was commissioned to produce for the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) in 2008. IDeA has since been rebranded as Local Government Improvement & Development (LGID). I’ve since been involved in the project as lead consultant in bringing the concept to a functional reality. This included an exhausting and exhaustive technology procurement process that lasted almost 9 months and was completed in November 2010 with contracts signed with PFIKS. We’re now in the actual development stage.
We’re using an agile development (Scrum) process, where the original 260 or so business requirements have been distilled into ‘stories’ describing the outcomes and which are clustered into a series of 2-weekly Sprints. Each Sprint is tested and signed-off before moving onto the next Sprint. There will be 28 Sprints in total, taking us up to a live launch around end of September, but an early ‘Beta’ release is being prepared after Sprint 8, which as noted earlier will happen around April. PFIKS and Liberata are the technology partners for delivery of the KHub and the technology solution will be developed on the PFIKS Intelligus Open Source platform.
I’ve previously blogged about KHub (Part 1, Part 2), and there is a growing mountain of material describing what it is and what it will do, including a video and a ‘de-jargonised’ or Plain English description that I’ve added as an attachment to this blog post. I don’t propose to regurgitate all of this background information here, but have tried to condense the key aspects into the following two paragraphs:
The Knowledge Hub is an open collaborative platform, developed using Open Source software, that will support greater knowledge sharing across the local government and public sector community, including Third Sector and private sector partnerships. It will join up conversations, data sets and information sources and make available free online tools and services shared across the local government community.
Aside from the collaborative aspect of KHub, data and services (e.g. Apps and Mashups) will be key to providing added value to the KHub as they provide tangible deliverable products within KHub which can be accessed and reused across the local government community. Providing an environment for uploading, accessing, reusing and further developing data and applications will result in savings of software development and data management.
However, coming to the point of this blog post; I’ve been aware for some time that generalised descriptions of KHub positioning and benefits do not adequately describe what this ‘thing’ is, or what it will do for its users. To this end (and to satisfy my feelings of guilt for not having blogged more frequently about what I firmly believe is an incredibly innovative product) I have decided to start a series of blog posts which (I hope) will illustrate in more depth and detail some of the fundamental design decisions. I’m also going to focus more on user experience than any detailed technical discussion, though I may need to refer to the technology when describing some of the features. I’m using a numbering scheme in the blog title to assist with assembling these posts over time into a comprehensive knowledge asset.
User Experience (UX)
For this post I will look at what we are doing for ‘User Experience, or ‘UX’. This is arguably the most important element of the project, since any amount of investment in the technology is worthless if people have difficulty in using the system or it isn’t fit for purpose. If we get this wrong then our current cohort of over 80,000 Community of Practice users (who will be migrated to the KHub platform during 2011/2) will abandon the new platform, and new users will try it once and leave.
Maybe before delving too deeply into this topic, we should pause to clarify the difference between the User Interface (UI) and the User Experience (UX)
The UI is defined as the system by which people (users) interact with a machine. The user interface includes hardware (physical) and software (logical) components. User interfaces exist for various systems, and provide a means of:
- Input, allowing the users to manipulate a system, and/or
- Output, allowing the system to indicate the effects of the users’ manipulation.
The UX is about how a person feels about using a system. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction and product ownership, but it also includes a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change.
As starter for this exercise we developed a number of pen portraits for typical users. These were then expanded into user profiles that can be used to inform the business flows that we need to develop for the user interface, and the types of knowledge assets that need to be available. The four roles that have so far been mapped out in this way are:
- Director of Finance and Performance
- Social services Team Leader
- Organisational Development Manager
- Deputy Head of Environmental Health
It is recognised that these are only four out of potentially many hundreds of different user roles operating in the public sector, but more will be developed, (a priority will be Council Member roles) but it’s a useful start.
UX Design Considerations
The following points highlight the main User Experience design considerations:
1. KHub is significantly more complex than the legacy CoP platform and even experienced users migrating from the legacy platform may find the new environment confusing. In fact, legacy CoP users may have more problems getting to grips with the new environment than first-time users since they will be looking for familiar navigation features, typography and functionality that they have used with CoPs.
2. KHub is leading-edge technology and we need to bring leading edge thinking into the UX design. The UX for the legacy CoP was unique at the time in providing a clean and simple interface, devoid of any clutter and limited in terms of personalisation options. This suited the demographic of the time (2006 launch) that were only just starting to use social networking facilities. Much has happened during the intervening five years, and many public sector staff are now both familiar and comfortable using social media tools, hence we can start to deliver to a more sophisticated audience. However, we must also ensure that we continue to cater for the novice user and strike a balance between user freedom to explore the features and facilities without the clutter of context-sensitive help, and the guided navigation that some users may require.
3. We should seek out design/UX experts and exemplar websites and in particular, to consider moving away from the traditional approach of presenting the user with lists, tabs or buttons which label various tools (blog, wikis, forum, wiki, etc.) and more towards ‘calls to action’ that describe business processes. Or in other words, to design around what the user is trying to achieve rather than the traditional typography of labelling tools in a toolbox. For example, if a user wants to open up a document for collaboration, the call to action may be ‘collaborate with contacts’. The actual social media application being deployed could be a wiki, but the user would not necessarily have to know that.
Jyri Engestrom calls this “finding your verbs”. Given a noun, what actions are associated with it? So, going back to school-day English lessons:
|Play, stop, edit, store, upload, comment on, embed.
|Read, archive, quote, link to, share, comment on, annotate, tag, review
|Store, views, add to favourites, edit, link to, make prints, share, comment on, embed, tag
|Read, purchase, add to wish list, comment on, rate, tag, discuss, review
Many of these verbs translate directly into features and can inform the typography to be used for the site. Also notice that the verbs are both personal and social. This is to be expected since we interact with objects on a personal level and a social level.
4. We need to seek out and utilise UX design good practice, for example, limiting the available choices on any page to no more than 4 or 5 options in order to avoid ‘cognitive dissonance’
5. We need to ensure that there are no ‘dead ends’ for any user process, e.g. always ensuring the user remains oriented and in a position to choose other actions on completion of an action they have started.
6. We need to recognise the continuing role of email in the daily work routines of users. We should ensure seamless integration of workflows between email and KHub facilities, e.g. making it simple to pots content to Khub from email clients, and ensuring relevant KHub content updates can be received by email.
And last but by no means least:
Community Building isn’t about Features. If there was one immutable law of social software, it would be this: Technology cannot solve people problems
No matter how great the technology you are using, it can’t solve what are fundamentally human social problems. Garnering interest, getting people excited about a topic, reciprocating knowledge – these are all social interactions. Technology may help you along the way, but it can’t have conversations for you and it’s no substitute for actual human interaction. It might be worth remembering that it’s people who collaborate, not machines!
Example of User Experience Design
The following is one of the many business scenarios we have used to help develop thinking around the features, functionality and content that the Knowledge Hub must deliver. The questions probe for solutions to the business problem, and answers to the questions inform the design for the UX. All references to places and individuals are fictitious, and any association with real people or places is purely coincidental.
Parking problems in Freedom City are now, in the words of one opposition councillor, the nightmare that won’t go away. Since the introduction of new parking restrictions in the City, each day sees councillor postbags packed with complaints about new parking rules, behaviour of the wardens employed by Yellow P (the parking contractor), and new higher rates of charges and fines.
Today the Freedom Times (the local morning newspaper) has run a single front-page picture story headlined ‘We’re Alright Jack!’ A picture takes up half of the front page and shows Council Leader Jack Bright parking his car next to other members and staff cars, in the city council’s own car park, right in the heart of the city centre. The article fills page 1 and most of page 3. It reports that Freedom Council provides all year around free city centre parking for members and staff, while at the same time pushing through ‘massive’ increases in charges and parking fines for ordinary residents. The Chamber of Commerce, city centre businesses and residents are all quoted condemning the council for hypocrisy and being self-serving. The paper says that the council was asked for a response but that the Director of Highways refused to comment.
The paper’s editorial condemns councillors for feathering their own nest with free parking, while at the same time ripping off residents, businesses and visitors to the City. It has started a petition demanding that councillors and staff pay for their parking like everyone else.
(Freedom City has been experiencing recruitment problems for key jobs such as social workers and planners. It has recently highlighted free parking as a benefit to people applying for the hard to fill jobs)
Councillor Bright is away in London today. You have agreed to appear on the regional evening news programme to put the council’s case.
1.1 Where would Councillor Bright go to find evidence of what other councils’ policies are for town and city car parks?
a) KHub will be a key resource. It will identify policies and charges made by other councils. Additionally KHub will identify
a. Parking for Councillors being a key benefit used to keep salary and recruitment costs to a minimum
b. Information from Freedom City on average commuting distances and numbers of council workers living in rural areas
c. Freedom City’s carbon footprint and how this has been reduced over the last few years
d. Car sharing as a % of council workers’ commuting practices
e. Numbers of workers who also carry childcare duties and therefore have flexible transport needs
f. Innovative thinking (such as that by Richmond) on charging based on engine size
g. Facebook/Twitter etc. campaigns relating to for/against parking arguments
h. Policies of the Green movement
i. Other Freedom City initiatives that reduce the carbon footprint
1.2 How could this council compare their costs for maintaining free parking for staff with other councils?
a) Charts and graphs by councils around the nation relating to different vehicle types
b) Chart average revenue per car/resident comparing Freedom with other councils
c) Allow user to select five(?) comparative councils and drill down (tabular/visual) into deeper metrics
d) Set up an online debate / forum with councillors from other national councils
e) KHub search and filter tools across all third party content to re-present that content in the most relevant format for the user’s needs and mode
f) Develop marginal cost/benefit analysis through dynamic online whiteboarding solution
1.3 How could this council identify opportunities for efficiency savings?
a) Closed/open consultation process with councillors/council workers/public
b) Public debate captured both on KHub and in the Freedom Times with RSS feeds in/out to both sites (depending on security settings)
c) Online debate (with offline element?) between Council leaders and local activists
d) Consideration of entire range of environmental efficiency savings put to public/private vote
e) Use of KHub to explore and consider efficiency savings and developments from other local councils.
f) Use of KHub to identify and converse with leading national voices on the issue to bring outside expertise and depoliticise the issue
(Other examples business scenarios available on request)
1. Designing for the Social Web, Joshua Porter, ISBN13:978-0-321-53492-7
2. Digital Habitats, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, John D Smith, ISBN 13: 970-0-9825036-0-0
4. UX Design Planning, Boxes and Arrows.
In future blog posts I will cover:
- ‘Social Graphs’ and ‘Activity Streams’ (which are key to how users will interact with the Knowledge Hub)
- Workspaces – setting up and managing
- Semantic search and the power of the Intelligus Retrieval and Matching Engine
- The Mashup Centre, the App Store and App development
- Open Standards, including OpenSocial, OpenID and OAuth
- Integration of web services (blogs, Twitter etc.)
- Online Conferencing facilities and Webinars
- Social Network Analysis, Analytics and other user/usage metrics.