Lessons from 2019

We’ve been working on changes to our website since 2018, developing a brand new site with a programme planning feature, improved navigation and a joined-up group finder experience.

We’ve learnt a lot in the process and, to welcome in the new year, we thought we would share some of our lessons with you.

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Agile working is incredibly effective

To assist in the development of our webplatform, we changed the way we worked. Traditional development often uses a methodology called waterfall, where software creation is broken up into a series of phases where each depends on the delivery of the last. This means that software can take longer to reach the user because it isn’t iterative.

Agile, however, focuses on a series of user stories, or desired experiences, to identify what features should be prioritised. By placing the user front and centre, functional software can be developed and user experience can be improved.

Using Agile meant we could:

  • Work in fixed “sprints” to set feature development goals
  • Have regular, timed meetings to showcase the previous week’s work, discuss lessons learned and generate future ideas
  • Empower the team to own the creation, development and upkeep of individual features
  • Iterate development to ensure features are released when ready rather than waiting for the whole project to complete

We’ve learnt that Agile is an incredibly powerful tool. It gives structure and focus to the creation of software and helps to break down projects into bite-sized chunks of features which can be released as they are completed. This, ultimately, helps to put the user at the heart of everything we do.

Going “Beta” invites everyone to improve your tools

One of the benefits of Agile development is the ability to release software part-way through its development. When a website is usable but there are features you’d like feedback on, releasing it in a “beta” stage helps to collect feedback from people outside the development team.

The feedback you have given us, on features such as our programme planner and group finder, has helped to shape their development. We’ve held dozens of webinars to discuss features, testing sessions to walk through user journeys and have strived to embed volunteer involvement at every stage of development. We’ve had almost 400,000 visitors to our site since its launch and received 4,380 individual pieces of feedback. Our tools have been improved immeasurably as a result.

We’ve found releasing our webplatform in its “beta” stage to be one of the most effective elements of our new way of working, helping us to continuously measure, test, and learn.

One for the techies: going headless is complex but worthwhile

For our webplatform, we wanted to create a mobile-first design that prioritised the user experience, using modern web technologies like Vue.js to create a reactive and responsive site. To fill it with content, we realised we were going to have to use what’s known as a headless CMS.

Beneath every website is a means to alter its content, called a Content Management System or CMS. They are often linked directly to the front-end or user interface of a website, like WordPress, but those systems are often restricted by their developers and difficult to customise.

It is also difficult to link a custom user interface to those systems without creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a website, with the CMS servicing some pages and other, static pages being displayed to create a unique or modern feel. We didn’t want to do that – we wanted our users’ experience to be consistent so coupling Vue with a headless CMS, Umbraco, gave us that ability.

While “going headless” gave us the user experience we wanted, it also created problems due to the complex nature of its implementation. With WordPress, there is one system to manage, one app to deploy. With a headless CMS, because it is detached from the user interface and the database as a separate entity, there is another system to manage. You have to have two environments which are kept in sync to ensure that functionality in one is mirrored in the other.

This proved particularly difficult for generating previews – something Umbraco does out of the box – because the CMS was not attached directly to the website. We had to adapt our working practices to achieve the functionality that would have otherwise come out of the box. We had to make sure our decision, driven by our desire to create the best user experience, was deliverable and manageable by our teams, too.

We’re very glad we persisted in implementing Umbraco, which makes it easier than ever before to manage and update a wide array of custom information across our webplaftorm. We learnt a lot during this process, but the successful deployment has reinforced the lesson that what’s good for the user is, in the end, also good for our team.

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We’re proud of what we’ve been able to deliver so far, and we’ve enjoyed learning and growing as an organisation during the course of our webplatform’s development.

Looking to 2020, we’re excited about the prospect of following the major digital trends of this year by putting data centre stage. We’ve already started to gather analytics about our website, whether through our Feedback tool or through Google Analytics, but we’ll be looking to use this data to inform our development priorities in the future.

We look forward to working with you throughout 2020 to test and improve our webplatform.

Changes to our beta website

Our beta website will soon replace scouts.org.uk to become our main website. Since its launch in May, we have been improving it to make it much better than our old website.

It’s easier to use on a wider range of devices (particularly mobile) and the addition of tools such as the Programme Planning feature and an improved Group Finder should make it easier for volunteers and parents to find what they need more quickly.

In advance of the changeover, we have made further updates to our beta website that we’d like to update you on.

Firstly, you may have noticed a change to our navigation bar – we’ve removed the downward chevrons to create space on either side of the menu items, we’ve added descriptions to each of our dropdown menu items and we’ve added a link to the Scouts Shop.

Also on the navigation bar is a new, improved Search feature. Search now looks for results from the main website and also includes results from members.scouts.org.uk, showing the URL beneath the result to make it easy to find what you need. We are working on moving the content into the main website – you can see it starting to build up under the Volunteers tab. In the meantime, members’ resources remains a separate site and is still available for your use.

We’ve also included a button allowing you to “sign in” – currently the button is greyed-out as we’re working on an implementation of single sign-on which we’re going to be rolling out in the next month. This will allow you to sign into the programme planning tool, to access and save programmes made on any device. We can’t wait to share more about single sign-on with you.

In addition to the cosmetic changes, we have updated Group Finder to include meeting day information, to help prospective volunteers and parents find groups active on days that suit them, and this includes Explorer Units.

Over the past few weeks we have been working to connect Compass to Group Finder to allow the editing of information within the Group Finder. However, it is now clear that we are not able to fully connect up the contact details element of Group Finder with Compass. We are still able to use the meeting times, schedules and location from Compass to populate Group Finder’s new search-by-day functionality.

With regards to the Group Finder data, we have extracted and cleaned the contact information and group location from the current Group Finder, as well as taking the meeting schedule and locations details from census and we have uploaded this to Compass and our new database for the Group Finder.

Alongside these database changes, we have also automated the “Want to Join” process so the form filled in by prospective volunteers and parents can be sent directly to the appropriate contact without displaying individuals contact details. We think these changes help to make Group Finder more secure and easier to use.

We’d like to thank you for all your feedback and support since our beta website’s launch in May which has helped to improve it and ensure it’s ready to become our new, main website this month, and we’re excited to tell you more about our upcoming features when they’re ready.

Developing a volunteer journey at our leadership forum

As an organisation with almost 600,000 members, the Scouts requires a large number of teams to work together to provide a quality Scouting experience for adults and young people. To help facilitate this, we hold a number of leadership forums throughout the year; this allows the staff leadership team to share what they’re working on and discuss how to approach the big opportunities for Scouting.

A key part of the Skills for Life strategy, launched in May last year, was to make being a volunteer at the Scouts a better experience. One of the three pillars of work of our strategy, People, highlighted our objective to have “more, well trained, better supported and motivated adult volunteers”. This meant improving the way we support and celebrate our volunteers and the work they do to develop the skills of young people.

We knew that digital would likely play a central role in these improvements, particularly in achieving a greater sense of belonging with the rest of the Scouting movement. By getting our staff leadership together we were able to work on a journey for our adult volunteers that would be as simple and enjoyable as possible.

Before we began our work on the volunteer journey, we had an expert talk to us about what it means to be a volunteer for the Scouts today, and the future of volunteering. We also had the lead volunteer for this project help frame our approach and remind the team to be bold in the planning of this transformative piece of work.

Staying true to the Agile methodology, we worked in scrums, collaborating to come up with user stories that attempted to highlight the issues our volunteers would face. From these we tried to come up with solutions, developing paper and wireframe prototypes that suggested how the future adult journey would look.

In this leadership forum our staff leadership team learned a lot about the issues faced by adult volunteers and gained a wide range of digital skills by working in an Agile way for the day. This work will help to frame our approach to improving the volunteer experience, using digital as an enabler to make the adult journey simpler and more joined up as part of our Skills for Life strategy.

Our first firebreak

“It’s great to see Scouts fully invested in the agile delivery approach and willing to experiment with handing more control over to the team.” David Weston, Head of Project Management at Reason Digital, delivery partner.

At the beginning of our first firebreak, our development and technical teams decided on the activities they were going to work on. Some of those ideas included:

  • researching new technology; 
  • a proof of concept with new technologies; 
  • a series of bug fixes and ‘tidy up’ activity; 
  • creating guides and updating documentation.

The team then took two weeks to carry out their ideas and presented their work in a team meeting.

One of the ideas – the proof of concept of new technologies – involved creating a GraphQL implementation of the new group finder and its API.

GraphQL was created by Facebook as a way of improving communication between systems. Typically, a developer defines what data can be retrieved from a system that is then built as a fixed interface. If different data needs to be retrieved at a later date or by another system, a new interface would be created or the first one updated, creating extra work, testing, and the possibility of breaking parts of the system already using the interface. 

The approach pioneered by Facebook is to allow the system fetching the data to specify what it needs. By providing one flexible interface capable of retrieving all the data in a system, we can reduce the changes needed and greatly speed up development of new features and tools in the website. Using this approach, we were able to produce a prototype that implemented Graph QL to flexibly display our group finder data.

One of our frontend developers commented, “The firebreak was great for taking a step back and looking at the wider impacts of decisions we’ve made around the fundamental architecture of our applications. Finding the time to reassess and question these approaches is often difficult, but can provide a huge amount of value in the long term.”

Although we won’t be releasing the work produced during the firebreak, we are continuing this work by looking at ways of tying together data from Badges, Activities, Groups and more through a single interface.

We can’t wait to see what the next firebreak produces.

Designing the beta website

Alex Pereira, UI and UX designer.

In a previous blog post, we touched on the design of our new beta website. To explain in greater detail, we interviewed one of our user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) designers, Alex Pereira, on his work. 

How did you come up with the designs for the new Scouts website and what principles or ideas, if any, guided you in your design work? 

The new website is based on standard web design principles using a 12-column grid. This transposes easily into a mobile device template, which is really important these days. The design itself is inspired by our brand identity and applied to all the new visual work currently being produced by the team. Because we are working with interactive digital elements more consideration is needed from a user’s perspective.  

Ultimately, the user is the primary focus. We need to give them the clearest and most intuitive path whilst trying to maintain as many of the principles of the brands’ tone of voice – Confident, Active, Challenging, Inclusive, Optimistic. 

Was there anything from the existing Scouts websites that helped to inform your work? 

One of the best things about designing the beta website is that it was a completely blank page to start with. There are no influences or distractions from the old website’s design. Building a complete UI design system from the bottom-up is an exciting and challenging process. 

The improved design will also be mirrored on how the majority of pages are going to function. Users will have enhanced and new features when the work is fully integrated. 

Designs for the beta website in Sketch.

What tools did you use? 

The primary tool I use is Sketch, because it allows for a fast, iterative design process. The goal is to eventually create a complete library of usable building blocks. When a comprehensive library is in place the pages literally build themselves!

Why is good design so important when building a website? 

Every page has a purpose and if it is badly designed users can get confused. If they’re confused, that could eventually see them leave that page. 

The user’s journey through a website can be more guided when consideration is given to typography, space and colour. Building a successful experience that reinforces the brand values is vital so that users feel happy to return and endorse what has been made. 

Search: a quick update on performance

The new Google powered search has been running now for 3 months, so it is a good time to check in on its performance.

Whilst there are some remaining issues with search turning up out of date information, we have been steadily trying to remove the more common content that ends up polluting peoples’ search results. This is an ongoing job.

Generally though, the search appears to be working better for people. The ‘Search Depth’ – the number of pages visitors view after getting results for the search term – is down 12% when compared to the previous year. This is great news, as it implies that more people than ever are finding what they need through search first time.

The real area of improvement however is the ‘Search Refinements’ metric – the frequency with which visitors perform a second search immediately after the first. This is good news because it means that more people are getting the results they are looking for first time.

This has improved by a mighty 31% when compared to the previous year.

As always, please do provide feedback to us using the widget on the search results page so we can continue to hone the way this works.