What’s It All About, Alpha?

It was pointed out to me last week that while I have written a lot about the alpha here on our blog I haven’t set out exactly what it is we are aiming to do. So this is an attempt to rectify that.

The primary objective of this alpha is to build a broad but shallow version of the ONS website that utilises modern web design thinking and allows us to implement the insights we have gained from our user research throughout the ‘discovery’ phase and beyond.

What do we mean by ‘broad but shallow’? We are seeking to provide enough content in the alpha to allow some kind of endpoint for the majority of user journeys. This means that there will be appropriate content in all of the navigation ‘nodes’ (we are implementing the taxonomy we previously tested) and a wide spread of content types. There will not however be historic data (other than ‘time series’) and some sections (About Us, Methodology etc) will be more sparsely populated.

We are also going to introduce a new approach to search using the open source software, ElasticSearch. This will build upon work we were hoping to implement on the current site and benefit from guidance from experts at independent search consultancy Flax and the Government Digital Service. Again the ‘broad but shallow’ approach is important here to ensure there is enough content to provide realistic search results.

To allow us to achieve these aims we will also be developing (or implementing) a lightweight CMS/publishing system that allows the easy updating of content, data and new pages to the site by an expert internal team. This will also help form the thinking on the best manner in which to provide an end-to-end publishing solution if/when we move to beta.

To ensure we remain focused on our user needs we will be organising a combination of formal, lab based and informal ‘guerilla’ user research throughout the alpha. The analysis will be used to prioritise development decisions so we can make iterative improvements as we go along.

In fact doing this all in a modern agile way is as much of a deliverable of the alpha as anything. We have formed a co-located, multidisciplinary team that is working in an agile manner and using current best practice in our approaches. The team is making use of ‘cloud’ infrastructure and has implemented continuous integration and automated testing tools. We are practicing ‘test driven development’ and using open source frameworks rather than reinventing the wheel. We are lucky enough to have been given the freedom to take an almost ‘lean startup’ approach and we are making the most of the learning opportunities.

There are other things going on but they are more inwardly facing for now so hopefully this has provided a bit of context as to what we are up to.

If you are asking yourself when will this all be done it is our intention to make the alpha available for public consultation some time in December but there will be opportunities for sneak peaks before then.

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