Beta Release Note: 071015

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed we pushed a LOT of changes to the Beta this evening. It has been 21 days since our last deployment to the ‘live’ environment – which currently feels like a lifetime but only a year ago would have felt like a miracle.

Design

The most obvious change is the design. It has evolved shall we say. Ever since the release of the Alpha we have had comments about the visual design stacking up and we’d never really found a window to prioritise and work them through. Then in recent weeks a perfect storm of additional issues identified in user research, a need to make some changes to sharpen up our accessibility compliance and some technical problems with building and maintaining our pattern library created the need to make the space to do this.

We have dropped the body text size – while hopefully maintaining readability and clarity – consolidated on a single typeface (Open Sans) dropping Dax as the header type. A lot of this was due to perceptions that the site somehow lacked seriousness in the previous design and this seemed to effect trust. Something we simply cannot risk.

A lot of work has been done to improve the colour contrast on pages for accessibility but again just for improved readability generally. The ‘spark-lines’ and interactive charts have also been slightly revamped with this in mind.

Signposting has been improved throughout the site (hopefully!) and we have tried to make interactions (and labelling) more consistent.

The majority of page templates have been worked on but hopefully the changes are not too alarming – the layout and functionality of the pages has not really changed significantly and where it has it was directly influenced by user feedback.

The homepage is the exception to the rule and has had a slightly more radical reworking. This page has been a consistent thorn in our sides and this latest version attempts to respond to criticism by taking a particularly modern approach.

Home

This ‘tiled’ style design (also seen on the BBC) provides flexibility in what we can highlight on the homepage without resorting to the dreaded carousel option. It also provides serious benefits when the site switches to a mobile view (for our growing number of users coming to the site via phones and tablets).

The A-Z browse option is coming soon but again is directly in response to user feedback – my gut feeling is that this could well become the primary navigation route for a number of our users.

Hidden but very close to completion is our new ‘release calendar’. It will allow users to select their topics of interest and subscribe via email, RSS or iCal (eventually – iCal from day one though.)

Now I know it all looks a bit ‘50 Shades of Grey’ at the moment but we are now working to carefully introduce more colours from our palette to highlight where needed and to generally lift the design.

Search and Lists

Elsewhere there have been a couple of other significant updates.

Since our earliest discussions about the new site we have been sketching pages that displayed lists of content. Wireframes for these pages have existed since before we started building the Alpha but somehow they never made it onto the development backlog. I tend to refer to these pages as the ‘connective tissue’ that holds the site together and with their introduction the site feels a massive step closer to fulfilling our vision for it.

These list pages will hopefully provide a customisable interface into our huge data offerings by allowing specific topic search and filtering. Thanks to the underlying data API and sensible URLs the possibility for users to subscribe via RSS or equivalent to the filtered lists they create. Now initially some of the filters are not working as we are working through how best to hook in to that metadata but hopefully you can get a feel for the direction.

In a related update we have made a number of changes to our site search. After attempting to simplify the search interface to almost Google levels we have accepted that our users need something a bit more specific (when they want the simplicity of Google they use Google!). We have reintroduced clear filter functionality and will also be adding an advanced option to explore our data more directly. We’ll be testing this a lot in coming weeks.

Search is a priority for us but since we started using the incredibly powerful ElasticSearch we have rather tended to ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at the problem – implementing all manner of the features in order to try and improve search results. This has meant changes contradicting each other and nowhere near the kind of improvements we would have liked in relevance. In order to prevent this we have stripped things back to just some basic ‘tuning’ of the software and implemented the search monitoring approach GDS implemented so we can get some real data on which to base our future improvements. To do this we need more people to put the search through its paces – so please use it!

There is a lot more going on but now we have a critical mass of content – with releases being added the day after the current website daily – it is really time to put the site through its paces. There is still plenty to do but the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.

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