How we created a new website for the Scottish Parliament

Some 4 years ago, the Parliament decided it was time to solve the problem of its old out-dated website. Last month the project to replace that website completed with the new service going live. This blog sets out our journey and highlights some of the key things we did to deliver our new website and complete the project.

There were lots of reasons why the Parliament needed a new website, and a general consensus that it needed replaced. There primary drivers for this were:

  • The technical aspects of the site were at at end of life stage and needed replaced - they could not be upgraded.
  • Overall site governance and resilience needed improvement.
  • The standard of what we published needed to improve and be consistent with what the organisation was trying to achieve from an openness and transparency perspective.
  • We needed to improve the accessibility of the site

The strategic context

There was a disconnect between what the organisation was trying to achieve and what we were delivering online.

When we set the context for the project, we considered:

  • the Parliament’s Strategic Plan, which talks about making it easier for people to understand how to engage with the parliament and helping people find the information they need when they need it
  • our Digital Strategy, which champions a positive user experience and high-quality information
  • the Presiding Officer’s Commission, which identifies language and certain procedures as a barrier to accessing and engaging with Parliament

Within the Parliament, we felt there was a disconnect between what we said and what we did with our online information. However, we wanted to be sure and ask the people who use our website. We conducted independent research which showed that users struggled to navigate the site, find information and in some cases perform some simple tasks. This independent research helped to validate what we already thought and also provided a useful benchmark for us.

The web and online roadmap – the framework for change

Once we’d agreed a change was needed, we had to think about what that change looked like. The web and online roadmap is the framework we used to move the change forward. The roadmap took into consideration the strategic direction of Parliament and our independent research. But it also involved extensive engagement with staff to help define what level of change the organization needed to achieve online to deliver a new modern web service that meets the needs of citizens now and in the future.

The web and online roadmap set out to articulate what we needed to do over the next 3 years to re-align what and how we deliver online with what the organization is trying to achieve. It split into 12 themes of improvement pulled into an overall agile roadmap to support the change. Find out more about the original roadmap themes in our 2018 blog.

Some of these themes of improvement covered:

  • moving to cloud-based hosting, implementing a new content management system and enterprise search services
  • embedding user-centered design (UCD) process and wider UCD and agile working practice as set out by the Government Digital Service (GDS), and a new design and design system to support further change and iteration
  • a new content strategy to improve the quality and accessibility of our information and a revised operating model for content publishing
  • a rationalized approach to publishing and maintaining core parliamentary information to ensure the record of Parliament going back to 1999 continues to be available  on the new service

These changes were all required to get us to a stable, modern foundation capable of supporting what the Parliament is trying to achieve.

User centered - defining user Top Tasks

We are a Parliament, so a vote over where to start chimed well with us. It was important from the outset that users' needs were a strong foundation  to shape our website.

To do this, we adopted a“Top Tasks” approach. We broke down parliamentary business into a list of tasks and asked our users to vote on the most important task to them. We didn’t vote on this – you did. You can find out more about Top Tasks in this blog post.

One of the principles of Top Tasks is that those tasks at the top of the user vote are more important to users than those at the bottom. So, following that logic, we put additional effort and content design expertise into making sure that those parts of the site met the needs of our users. Top Task 1 was legislation so that’s where we started.

The first build of the website was based on delivering the 3 most important Top Tasks for our users. This blog post explains more about how our Top Tasks informed our first beta release.

We established a multi-disciplinary agile delivery team

Having the right mix of skilled professionals to deliver the new site was key. We followed the team structure recommended by Service Standard, with a Product Owner responsible for the overall delivery. Key roles were secured across:

  • interaction design
  • user research and testing
  • business analysis and testing
  • content strategy and design
  • scrum master
  • front end and development
  • data team

The team was a blend of internal staff seconded into the project and external consultants brought in for their specialist knowledge. The blend of expertise working together collaboratively, with input from subject area experts in the business provided a solid foundation for delivering the new service.

Another key change around the team was adopting agile delivery and the proven approaches  set out in GDS. So, we adopted Agile from day one and the project worked to an overall roadmap that started with basic Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) which were further iterated and improved.   

We also knew how important it was to work out loud and take our stakeholders and subject area experts with us on this journey. To do this we engaged stakeholders in regular show and after each of our agile sprints. We also updated our project blog regularly to give all of our interested users an update as the project progressed and we released new features onto the site.

When we started the project, our stakeholder group was around ten. By the end of the project there were around 60 staff representing almost every part of the organisation – showing how much of the organisational has been impacted by our work.

Content strategy improvements started with legislation

One of the new items introduced onto our legislation pages are new plain English bill summaries. Previously, to understand a Bill, a user would have to interrogate the complex legal wording behind it. , We knew this was both difficult for the user and also challenging to understand. We introduced the idea of Bill summaries to help users understand the what and the why of any Bill that comes before Parliament. We tested both the approach and the content itself with users to make sure it would make Bills easier to understand and worked with experts in our Bills team to make this change happen. One of the outcomes of the project is every Bill from this session includes a Bill summary, and this will continue into the next parliamentary session after the election. We know now that the average person in Scotland will be able to visit our Bills pages and be able to quickly understand what a Bill is about and why it was introduced.

The quality user centered and content design processes we adopted for Bills content set the standard for how we would move forward across all other Top Tasks and publishing scenarios.

Foundations then first beta delivery supported 3 Top Tasks

Our first website release was the creation of the “alpha”, which is an early proof of concept that demonstrates we could create a simple version of our website in the software we had chosen. To achieve alpha. Having done this, we moved onto the beta release. To achieve beta, we had to put in place the technical cloud infrastructure to deliver the new site and also implement the design to support our first product release. We also had to integrate data from parliamentary systems to support this first major release.

Our first beta release focused on delivering the first 3 Top Tasks:

  •  Legislation
  • What was Said in Parliament?
  • Parliamentary Questions

From a stakeholder management perspective this was one of the most challenging points because this essential background work doesn‘t have a lot to show. Lots of work happens below the surface but its only really when work commences on the actual product that the business really starts to get engaged and interested.

What was important to the project team was that were we were on track and able to show the linkage between what users asked for (voted for) and what was made available at the beta release point. The Top Task methodology says that the first release should focus on your Top Task vote and we were true to that, delivering the first 3 areas. Our beta release showed significant progress and was delivered 1 year after we started the delivery phase of the project in March 2019. Beta was classified as a minimal viable product, but it gave a clear indication of how we were working and set expectations for how we would deliver going forward. This blog describes the beta release in more detail.

Core Parliamentary Information and the other 29 Top Tasks

After beta, the next phase was to complete the remainder of the Top Tasks. One of the challenges of delivering a new website is ensuring information is either migrated from the old site, or continues to be available in some way. The Parliament has information going back to 1999 and it was important to retain this information. We developed approaches to handle this information, ensuring user-centred design and user needs were at the heart of our recommendations. Our blog from 1999 to today - telling the story of parliament explains our approach to publishing core parliamentary information.

Keeping the user central to each of the top tasks means that for every task we undertook:

  • user needs analysis
  • content discovery
  • definition of user needs to inform the minimal viable product

Over the last 2 years we have delivered multiple releases and MVPs. Each of our releases followed a user-centered design approach and adhered to our content strategy. Our products are often a combination of new sections of the site that are content designs and also integrating information from our data platform covering area like:

The work we did across this areas often involved new content design processes and also integration with parliamentary data sets such as information for:

We also consider  the accessibility standards that apply to websites and ensure information published on the new site follows accessibility standards.

Design system and microsite consolidation

One of the themes of the website project was to consolidate microsites and bring consistency across our channels. Overall we were trying to ensure that people can complete most of the tasks they need to do in one place. For example, people wanting to visit the parliament were previously sent to a separate microsite. Now, that functionality is embedded in the core site in the visit section (although visiting is curtailed currently with Covid restrictions).

We have also created a design system which ensures we have consistent user patterns and interaction across the site. Part of our new content management system means we can still create microsites but now we can do this using consistent look and feel utilising the same system to manage these sites. An example of this functionality can be found on both the Festival of Politics and Business in Parliament sites which have separate web addresses but all come from the same content management system.  Also our new petitions system, which  was delivered under this project, and although managed on a separate system, follows the same look and feel of the main site and our users can move easily between the new website and the petitions system.

Project ends and service starts

On 29 March 2021 the beta site became the primary  Parliament website as it moved  from beta to full-service delivery. We are now transitioning from a project team delivery into live service. However we are starting in a good place because we have blended our staff into the project to build their knowledge and experience in the new way of working. We have delivered a huge amount under the remit of the project but there are still things to done to continue to improve the website.  Going forward, we will continue to do user-centered design, agile delivery and deliver a new website with content strategy at the heart of what we publish online. Please visit the new site and get in touch if you have any feedback.