One area of possible development for the Aberdeenshire Council website I’d be interested in is adding microformat code into suitable pages. A microformat is a convention for adding information to a web page. The idea is that, as the information conforms to a set format, software can identify and process the information appropriately. It makes the information machine readable.

For example, if we had a page to advertise the Taste of Grampian Food Festival we could outline the relevant information using microformats as :

Taste of Grampian

Saturday 6th June

Thainstone Centre
more information

Contact Details

Thainstone Centre
AB51 5XZ
Phone: 01467 623700

The underlying code code for the above section is :

<div class="vevent">
<h1 class="summary">Taste of Grampian</h1>
<abbr class="dtstart" title="2009-06-06T09:30">Saturday 6th June</abbr>
<abbr class="dtend" title="2009-06-06T16:30">09:30-16:30</abbr>
<abbr class="location" title="Thainstone Centre"></abbr>
<div class="geo">Thainstone Centre<abbr class="latitude" title="57.257254"></abbr><abbr class="longitude" title="-2.374635"></abbr>
<a class="url" href="http://www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/events/detail.asp?eventID=1327">more information</a>
<div class="vcard">
<h2 class="summary">Contact Details</h2>
<div class="fn org">Thainstone Centre</div>
<div class="adr">
<div><span class="locality">Inverurie</span></div>
<div><span class="postal-code">AB51 5XZ</span></div><br />
<div>Phone: <span class="tel">01467 623700</span></div>
<div>Email: <span class="email"><a href="mailto:food.and.drink@aberdeenshire.gov.uk">food.and.drink@aberdeenshire.gov.uk</a></span></div>

It uses two microformats, hCalendar for the event information and hCard for the contact details. Additionally this also includes location information using the geo microformat.

<div class="vcard">
<h2 class="summary">Contact Details</h2>
<div class="fn org">Thainstone Centre</div>
<div class="adr">
<div><span class="locality">Inverurie</span></div>
<div><span class="postal-code">AB51 5XZ</span></div><br />
<div>Phone: <span class="tel">01467 623700</span></div>
<div>Email: <span class="email"><a href="mailto:food.and.drink@aberdeenshire.gov.uk">food.and.drink@aberdeenshire.gov.uk</a></span></div>

This is all very well but what practical use can microformats be used for. One common way is the use of browser add-ons to read the information so that it can be used as required. Common add-ons are Operator for FireFox and Oomph for Internet Explorer. When you view a page containing microformats the add-ons allow you to save the event into a calendaring system, save the contact details into an address book and view the location in an online mapping system.

For example, viewing the above code with a FireFox – Operator combination produces the following :

Screenshot showing operator Contacts tab

Screenshot showing operator Contacts tab

Screenshot showing operator Events tab

Screenshot showing operator Events tab

Screenshot showing operator Locations tab

Screenshot showing operator Locations tab

The event details can be exported to a calendar program such as Outlook or saved to an online calendaring system such as Yahoo. Likewise the contact details can also be saved to Outlook or saved to an online system. Finally the location of the event can be viewed using a program like Google Earth or viewed online using an online mapping website.

The actions these browser add-ons allow are cetainly useful but would the number of people using them make the extra work adding microformat content to our website worthwhile. My own feeling  is that we could easily add microformat code to pages that are created dynamically but the work adding them by hand to individual pages wouldn’t be justifiable.

Inevitably, there are problems associated with microformats. The major problem is that some microformats use the <abbr> tag to hide machine readable code. This can cause accessibility problems for screen readers used by the visually impaired. This issue has caused the BBC to stop using these microformats as explained here. Also, microformats are probably only suitable for pages with a small number of events. If we wanted to supply a larger number of events an iCalendar file might be more appropriate.

I don’t think microformats are a long term solution but could be useful in the meantime until other approaches, such as embedded XML, are better supported.

So the question I am asking is, should we start using microformats on the Aberdeenshire Council website? I look forward to any feedback.

I don’t think microformats are a long term solution but could be useful in the meantime until other approaches, such as embedded XML, are better supported.

So the question I am asking is, should we start using microformats on the Aberdeenshire Council website? I look forward to any feedback.

Further information on microformats can be found at http://microformats.org/.


The Finishing Line

First post for a couple of weeks so apologies for that. The good news is that this was because we’ve been spending all of our time putting the finishing touches to the new design.

I’m pleased to say that we have now launched and you can see the fruits of our labour over at www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk. Hopefully it’s worth the wait!

Of course, this is not the end of the story. We still have lots of improvements to make and ideas to try out which we just didn’t have time to look at before the launch. So you can look forward to lots more smaller scale changes over the coming weeks and months. If you have any ideas about what you’d like to see us develop then leave a comment here and we’ll see what we can do.

In the meantime, do let us know your overall impression of the new design. We’re also interested to hear what you think about the idea of blogging about the process and the future of Mountain to Sea?

Beta Site

Work continues apace on the site. Still lots of work to be done, particularly to integrate all the interactive elements of the site, but we are aiming to launch in a couple of weeks.

Having previously posted some static screenshots of the new design we have now released a “beta” version. As a beta site it’s not fully functioning at the moment but most of the content should be there and a number of the applications should also work. Some of the things that won’t quite do what you expect are the search, local information, online services, forms and payments.

Do feedback your thoughts on how things are shaping up.

Thanks to all those that help us out on Friday in both Ellon and Banchory libraries!

We found it a really useful exercise and it certainly got us thinking about our new design. Libraries seem to be a great arena for testing and we got a good cross section of users from all different demographics.

We were using what’s called the thinkaloud protocol, where we were asking users to speak through what they were clicking on, and why.

Specifics we wanted to look at on the new design were

  • First Impressions
  • New Site vs. Old
  • Navigation
  • On page links
  • External and Related Links Box
  • Colours
  • Page width
  • A-Z on every page

Overall first impressions were very positive and some of the comments were as follows (with our comments in italics):

  • Doesn’t look like a council website [were taking this as a positive! ]
  • Bright, Clean, Modern, Professional, but why pink?
  • More pictures please! These brighten up the site. [See Jamie’s post about how you can contribute to this]
  • The A-Z was especially useful and was often preferred to the left hand navigation for finding content
  • Some of the pages had too much text and content got in the way of what they were trying to find
  • Could you have the contact number on each page? [This is something we are considering]
  • Local information will be a great addition
  • Links are obvious [We have changed the way we display these as they are no longer underlined]
  • Nice use of colours, but not sure about the Social Care and Health fluorescent red [We thought that some of the colours are too bright]
  • Could all the forms be in one location? [Great idea! Were definitely going to implement this one!]
  • No way to click back to homepage at the top left [We will add this in – another great help]
  • Events section is a great addition! [We have had this for a while, but the new site brings it forward in the structure]
  • Quick links look good, could these be customised? [Another great suggestion and something were working on – watch this space!]
  • Why doesn’t libraries have its own section on the left hand side?
  • Content stands out more and good to move away from the ‘doctors surgery’ green [We didn’t even think about that, but now you mention it…]

The team are hard at work building the new site and I thought it was about time that we gave everyone a look at some of the pages which we’ve been working on. Hopefully these screenshots will demonstrate some of the ideas behind our changes.

As well as refreshing the overall look and feel of the site we are trying to address a couple of key usability improvements:

  • improve the overall “findability” of the information and services you’re looking for; and
  • increase the site-wide exposure of pages that we’d like to promote to you

We are focussing on key pages across the site to achieve both of these aims. For example you will be able to jump to a series of pages targetting a particular group of users, for example Parents or Older People. On these pages we are bringing together featured content, popular services, related news and useful links which should be particularly relevant to that group. Here’s an example of the page for Visitors:

We are also aiming to give direct access to popular information and transactional services from pages which are closer to the “top” of the site structure. Here’s an example of the new Public Transport page which now includes a bus timetable search:

Hope you like the ideas which we’re developing. Do let us know if you can think of any other improvements which could help to make the site more user friendly.

As part of the site redesign we want to use more images of people, places, and activities from around Aberdeenshire. We have a bank of images available to us through our photography department but we would love to use photos submitted by you too.

We can give credit on the photograph submitted if required. Photos submitted with identifiable people in them would need to have permission from your subjects giving us permission to use the photo on our website.

If you have a photo you would like to share with us then please post your photo onto a photo sharing website such as Flickr and email the web link to shirephotos@aberdeenshire.gov.uk. Please add “shirephotos” in the image comment or image tags so we know which photos you are submitting.

Looking forward to seeing some outstanding images!

We’ve been working on the new site for a few weeks now we would like some fresh insight. One way to find out if it really works is to test it with some real users.

I will therefore be in Ellon Library next Friday morning (17th October) with my thick-skinned suit on, laptop at the ready awaiting your comments!If you fancy dropping in, we will have an almost completely working version of the site and would love to ask you a few simple questions.

Testing one user is 100% better than testing none, however we are really hoping for 10 – 15 ‘volunteers’ to grab for a quick chat about the site. The more the merrier!

Alongside your first impressions I’ll be looking at 3 main points of the new design.

  • Its “effectiveness” – how easy it is to learn or complete a task.
  • Its “efficiency” – the speed at which a task can be completed.
  • Its “satisfaction” – your perception or opinion of the process.

Just as importantly, it would be great to hear your general thoughts on the site. Is it useful? Is it usable? Are we completely missing the point?

More details including times and other locations to follow early next week.

Have you had a good or bad experience using a website recently?  Whether it be not finding what you wanted on a site or if you had difficulty working out how to complete a task such as purchasing something. A bad experience using a website can put you off coming back or completing the task you set out to achieve.  A good experience might make you want to come back more readily and spend more time on the site.

As part of the redesign we will be testing the site both in terms of usability and accessibility throughout the process.  Having a good user experience while using our site is a very important factor for us.

I wanted to find out which sites you like to use, ones which keep you coming back and ones which you have had bad experiences with.  Why did the site make you want to go back or stay far away?

Off to Edinburgh first thing to discuss all things web with other like-minded individuals at the Scottish Webteams Forum. I’ve managed to get roped into doing a quick session on blog tools so this very site should get a mention. Will be interesting to hear what others think of the approach we’re taking.

Being from that neck of the woods myself, and a geographer to boot,  I shouldn’t get lost on the way to the City Chambers. However on websites poorly designed navigation often leads to lost and frustrated users. As such this is an area which deserves plenty of attention when it comes to our testing.

Working on the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” principle we intend to keep most of the content structure pretty much the same. But we are thinking of changing the way the navigation works as well as how it looks. Here’s a screenshot of an example of the local navigation options in the Schools section:

Interested to get feedback on whether this is an improvement on our current design. In particular the arguably more subtle use of colour and showing main section links on every page – we remove these at lower levels on the current site.

Firstly, thanks for all your feedback so far. It’s great to hear from some users and what they think of the new design. Because the web team here look at the website almost all the time it is often difficult for us to see the wood for the trees when it comes to what works and what doesn’t!

At the moment the team is busy building site templates which will allow us to carry out direct user testing. We’ll then be able to check some of the points which some of you have made about the clarity of text and the use of colour. We should have lots more screenshots for you to take a look at early next week so watch this space.

In the meantime, I’d like to pick up on a point made by R Wilson about the possibility of adding a forum to the site. This is something which the web team and the Council’s website management group have discussed a number of times over the last few years. We’re keen to drive traffic to the site and create a sense of community which a forum could obviously help to do. But there’s always been a worry about the time needed to moderate the discussions and the potential for abuse.

For every successful Council website forum there appear to countless others which fail, either through lack of any interest or through inappropriate use and/or lack of adequate management. I suspect that a key factor if these are to be succesful is the active and positive participation of Council staff. I’d be interested to hear from our own staff if they think this would be a useful addition to the website?

If there’s a general feeling from our site users that this is something which would be useful then we can think about how it might be taken forward in the future. Is this a good idea and, if so, how should it be managed?