Dublin City Council is Ireland’s largest local council. It serves over half a million people, with another half a million working, studying, and visiting each day.
From an initial request to assess the user experience of the Council’s site, I helped turn the account into a long-term strategic partnership with Each&Other. Over the three year strategic relationship I led the team that provided design, user experience, and combined digital and business strategy services to the Council.
- Client: Dublin City Council
- Position: Account lead
- Team: 2 (initially), 4 (later)
- Year: 2014-2017
- Activities: Client management, user testing, user & stakeholder interviews, design, collaborative design workshops, prototyping,
Dublin City Council had been hit hard by the recession. The Council’s budget was frozen, it was unable to hire new staff, mandatory retirement was forcing experienced and necessary staff out the door, and privatisation of some services was pushing the council further and further away from the citizens it was designed to serve.
At the same time, Dublin’s citizens’ needs were changing. More and more people were depending on support and services from the Council. And most were turning to the Council’s digital services to get this support. Yet even though the Council’s site had been recently redesigned the site featured a complicated design, poor and inconsistent content, and a labyrinthine navigation.
The Council asked us to review the site and provide design recommendations. We reviewed the site, and went much further. We looked at how the site was designed, supported, and maintained.
We found that the challenge and opportunity facing the site, and Dublin City Council, was much greater than they anticipated. We developed a 5 year business and digital strategy for the Council to help the council meet the needs of the citizens it serves.
In 2014, Dublin City Council asked Each&Other to review the Council’s new site, focusing on the homepage design. The site’s backend infrastructure had been upgraded necessitating a redesign of the front end. Our initial task was to review the site with core users and recommend design improvements.
We conducted stakeholder interviews with members of the original redesign team and the broader team in the Council. With these interviews we wanted to understand how the site was redesigned and managed.
We then tested the site with citizens who have or would likely use one or more Council services.
The full experience
This research told a difficult story. The team managing the site wasn’t empowered to make strategic decisions about its development. They were overworked, in part because of the civil service hiring freeze and in part because of their position within the corporate hierarchy.
Apart from discovering many user experience issues with the site, we found more crucial issues – citizens had little knowledge of the work and services that the council provided. Many users didn’t even know which of the four Dublin local councils was theirs.
To gain a better idea of the needs of Dublin’s citizens we shadowed council call centre staff. This research gave us an keen understanding of the important public service work that the Council provides. We learned of the desperate situations that some citizens were in, and how much they relied on the hard work of the Council.
Because users had difficulties using the site, they resorted to using the phone. This placed pressure on the call centre staff, who often relied on the site to find information. This was a hidden cost for the Council.
This research told a difficult story. The team managing the site wasn’t empowered to make strategic decisions for the site’s development. The site was a political football with many departments requiring unique digital services or frequent content changes, the site management team was overworked. Through frequent changes and no single vision the voice of the user was not being heard.
Strategy first, design second
With these findings we worked with the council to reassess our what was truly needed. We felt that any redesign of the site would only have a limited effect if the current site management process remained.
Dublin City Council needed a strategy that repositioned the digital department, allowing it to take full ownership over the site’s strategy. We worked with the council to do this, by first putting new editorial and change request processes in place.
We then tested these processes with the Council’s Housing department. During this process we designed and piloted a editorial workshop programme that placed the Council’s digital department in control of the collection and management of the Housing department’s digital content.
Once this pilot was complete, and we were happy that the process was working we set about redesigning the site most critical part of the site – the navigation structure.
To redesign the site navigation we conducted a series of workshops with the digital department using the content created by the Housing department. This content-first approach (as opposed to the technology-first approach previously taken by the Council) allowed us to redesign Housing department’s section of the site in a way that was easier to use and more informative.
A key insight for us during this process was that this was not a site that users visited to ‘have a look around’. This was a utilitarian site, users went to it to perform a task and then leave.
This insight informed our design process. We replaced unnecessary descriptive content (e.g. “according to section 4 of the local council act”) with navigation elements. Taking a hub and spoke model we removed this content and placed descriptive navigation elements in their place. This made it easier for users to navigate from the home page to the content they needed – it also prevented departments from adding unnecessary or verbose content that confused users.
Five year strategy
With the strategic process in place and tested we then provided the Council with a short, medium, and long term roll-out strategy. This strategy was then used by the Council as a basis for a full-service business and site redesign tender issued during the summer of 2017.