Beta begins

After a bit of an (admin / bureaucracy) hiatus since passing alpha assessment, the beta to replace has started. Here are some notes from the first sprint.

Personas, by mindset

User research has been a constant throughout discovery and alpha, but organising it in a meaningful way seemed to be a constant blocker. For example, a business will alway need finance, but the precise needs will vary because of their experience, outlook and so on, so segmenting by size or age of business for example, isn’t useful.

I’m chuffed Stuart Church has joined the team (was always impressed with his work with my old colleagues at ONS which still seems to be used) to get more structure and rigour to all the research we’ve got.

The thinking at the moment is segmenting users by mindset:

  • Power player: users which know where they’re going and what they need, but need a bit of consultative help in order to grow their business
  • Ambitious: know where they need to get to but need a little more help in getting there
  • Conservative: happy with their lot and a little resistant to anything too risky

We’ve got a survey live at the moment to see if it’s sensible to structure them this way, or another. More to come around nailing the personas and design functionality and content to meet their needs.

Slicker sign up

We’ve iterated the design of the sign up form because users seemed to vocalise very mild frustration. This might well move us away from one thing per page, but we’ll see. We’ll use the Companies House look up a bit more to bring in the registered address for the business. If the user is based there, that’s one less thing for them to fill in. If not, the standard postcode finder / enter manually option will be there.

Analytics and SEO shizzle

As well as Stuart, it’s great to have Duncan Bloor (ex BBC) on the team. He’s got stuck into keyword research (to help inform content design) and also scheming with the devs to make sure what we’re building is as SEO friendly as we can get it.

Internal linking is an obvious thing we should do, but to make it work automatically, intelligently and correctly is a thing we’ll tackle in sprint 2. Spiking elastic search in sprint 1 concluded that term/phrase suggester or MLT Query could well be the answer.

Speaking of spikes

We also had a look into using a

  • 6ish figure code to type in, rather than clickable link – the latter posed problems with users with visual impairment who use a laptop for internet and phone for email (the magiclink to log in only works if you use one device)
  • Passphrase as an alternative method of logging in

The thing with both of these appraoches is to remove the need of using a password. Something I keep fighting for given ux testing supports is.


Notes for sprint 5

Things feel like they’re wrapping up even though we’ve got (at a push) 1.5 fortnight sprints left. Here’s what happened in sprint 5.

User research emergent themes

Stewart and Rosie have been busy interviewing participants I found from my Twitter scraping recruitment exercise


…and emergent themes are coming through.

  • Funding – the right sort at the right time can make or break a business
  • Size matters – investors often overlook the little guys
  • Skills outside technical competence – such as negotiation, commercialisation – don’t come naturally to all
  • The importance to reach beyond national borders to maintain and grow the business
  • Finding specialists directly would be preferable over short term consultancy
  • Mentoring – kept coming up as a mean of being helped along
  • [Needing to] ‘trust’ the site is another one we’ve picked up through usability testing. If a user is expressing an interest in an partnering opportunity, they may be hinting at their IP which naturally makes them nervous.

I wanted to share these with the rest of team as they shaped up so we could be sympathetic to them as we go, building on the [more granular, functional] stories picked up during usability testing and sorted on the trello and real boards.

As the interviews wrap up this sprint, we’ll almalgate stories from both for a consistent picture, in readiness for assessment, though I’m comfortable work happening now is on the right track.

Opportunity-to-thanks for registering

Until now, build has been one sprint behind design. Usability tests were pop up sessions early on in sprint 5 which meant observations carried forward were implemented early doors. I’ve lined up 12-15 sessions for  the last two sprints and was keen the build be as up-to-date as the designs. This is more the GDS way of designing in code, but costs me double time and money. It’ll be worth it though I’m sure as these tests will be the acid test of ideas to date with observations added to the beta backlog.

Part of what we’ll test is the password-less log in (using email to verify the user by sending them a link to click or code to copy and paste). The concept went down fine at discovery usability testing, but now there’s more meat to the prototype bones, it feels like it’s now or never. The results of these last two sprints will decide if we progress down this route, which is the service’s most significant redesign piece.

2-3 assisted digital sessions are within that 12-15 remaining tests I mentioned, which will help steer the decision.

Form follows function*

Now we’ve spent a good amount of time designing the end-to-end transactional service, we need to also consider how we’ll excite / inspire / engage users too. EEN exists to serve cutting edge start ups in the UK, to helping them scale up, predominantly using internationalisation as a means to do that.

User research has confirmed to user needs to address this, but it’s a complicated, overwhelming prospect. Our content approach will be to show, not tell and we need to do that in a way which will turn out users on.

The user research has also been exploring the psychographic profile of our audience, so building on from some control designs in this sprint…

…we’ll take one or two more routes to a focus group to see what shakes out.

*borrowed from fffunction who I worked with on Dorothy House a while back. Great guys, did a great job and name rings true for EEN, methinks.

Sprint 4 (of 7) notes

Tweaking elastic, building sentences and show & tells have been the order of this sprint – as it probably has been on a playgroup somewhere as well – though that’s where the similarity with my project stops 😉

Unpicking elastic search

The initial implementation saw us using match query which literally searches any of the words entered in the search box, exactly as typed. It’s configured to search titles, summary and description (weighted in that order) of each opportunity and while the results that came back were ‘right’, it wasn’t immediately clear to the user why they were right (in instances where the match is in the depths of the opportunity or generic words such as ‘management’ in ‘waste water management’ would therefore return all sorts.

This sprint, we’ve worked up two instances for usability testing side by side: fuzzy (to allow for typos) and phrase matching (to consider the proximity of words to each other).


A few of the team are of to Venturefest Manchester and New Scientist Live for some pop up testing  for us to gauge which, if any, instances bring back more useful results.


Building sentences

Last sprint highlighted the confusion users faced when starting a search by seeing the full list to then refine.

Screen Shot 2016-09-19 at 8.24.25 PM.png

I suppose it’s not unlike walking into a supermarket which shows everything on offer, and you walk around to pick what you want. Everyone’s used to that, products are consistently laid out; fruit and veg at the front, bakery somewhere near the back etc. But online search is a hugely different kettle of fish.

We’re trying a concept of building a sentence which is akin to how an advisor would help a client search the database if face to face.

We’ve got two routes: one which is more form-like and this one which is more like building a sentence.

sentence builder.gif


We’ll test both this coming sprint, but alternating which one tests first, to avoid skewing the result. While the team is in Manchester, I’ll nip off to Bolton to meet a user who has assisted digital needs to see how she gets on with them. Before we get too excited with our creation we need to work up whichever one performs best at testing for all our audiences with their varying needs.

Show and tells

Each sprint retrospective, I record and 10-ish minute screen/audio canter through what the team has done, and send it to stakeholders for their information and comment. The format is working well and this last sprint I had a healthy slot at the all staff webinar.

The objective was to inform a wider group of stakeholders () kick the tyres on a few things and test the reaction () and to run a couple of web environment / Salesforce / GovDelivery hack ideas I had by then to see if there’s sufficient advisor (user) need to add them to the backlog ().

Those hack ideas went down well…

Make the website the end point for the user after a first meet with an advisor.

  • Scenario: Often after a first advisor/client meet, an advisor would follow up with an email pointing to a few relevant opportunities for the client. Advisor colleagues won’t know the detail nor will anyone know opens or clicks.
  • Idea:
    1. The advisor searches the database in the backend to select a couple of things.
    2. An email button opens up the things which the advisor can write a message
    3. Click send which transports through GovDelivery which therefore adds the email to the contact on Salesforce as well as any engagement stats.

Segmenting the audience by keywords we know they’re interested in

  • Scenario: Advisor is running an event about the circular economy, so wants to invite clients in that field
  • Idea:
    1. Again searching the backend for relevant keywords – stuff like ‘recyclable, environment, waste water – brings up all the clients subscribed to those words and clients sent opportunities with those words in, perhaps from different keywords.
    2. Advisor can select users to add to a GovDelivery topic which then
    3. is visible in GovDelivery where the email template is created
    4. Engagement stats are then passed back to each Salesforce contact.

This would be even cooler if the clients results showed number of clicks for the searched subject, should we need to be selective on which clients we sent to. But, first thing first. There’s a huge organisational task of cleansing the data we have: currently 1/3 of our clients receiving these alerts do so with optimised the keywords, the rest receive everything which is a legacy thing on our side.

It’ll pay dividends though. Conversions from that 1/3 is twice as effective.

That’s sprint 3 done

Another fortnight passes, a lot’s going on, but this week I had the (only slight) realisation of the mountain still to climb. Doable though. Very doable.

User research recruitment

Feels as though this is an ongoing challenge for agile teams in government. An ongoing tussle between recruitment suppliers understanding and delivering the brief and participants participating can make things a little unpredictable when relying on (a different sample of) user input at each sprint to inform what you’re making.

I’ve taken matters into my own hands by recruiting myself, which remains to be seen if it’s the right thing to do. I’m using Twitter to find ‘innovative small businesses’ by scraping large accounts like @startupstowers, @beisgovuk and @britishchambers and building lists with auidiense of accounts with certain keywords in the bio. I’m then using Dr Tweety to export that info and manually(!) flicking through to get a shortlist to politely and respectfully approach.

The idea is to get a mix of people who know about the Innovate UK family (@innovateuk, @EEN_UK, @KTNUK and @Catapult_UK – and all 50 sub twitter accounts) and those who don’t. And also aim for a split across sectors. All in the name of a balanced view, which may also throw up some contrasting insight.

We’re on a shortlist of 60 names and have visualised the relationships between them in gephi, which is helpful to see which of the segments described above are under represented.

network no labels.png

I’m keen to see if a visualisation like this could be used for showing the rank of users needs and how (if they do) vary across the segments. We’ll see if patterns start to emerge. One of the reasons behind my thinking for this is that too often research is done then left collecting dust. I like the idea of something this project (and others) can build on over time and interrogate.

Usability testing

Sticking with the user, we ran our first round of showing some folk our work last sprint.

We’re starting from a GOV.UK look and feel, albeit different branding, and will deviate away at points where users got a little stuck. That’s the joy of a GOV.UK exemption 🙂

A big thing we’re taking to sprint 4 making the search easier for users to get their head around.

Search Results (GDS) - Selected

While showing all results is the default starting point on GOV.UK, where you tweak the parameters to refine the results, users were overwhelmed so we need to explore the options.

There are tweaks to microcopy, highlighting keywords in results as well as tagging on the cards, as is some sort of sentence builder for the user to play with first, which then returns the results page.

A big challenge we’ve got with the API’d content is the occasional contradictory headlines and descriptions where users don’t feel they’re looking at relevant results (from the headlines alone), but in reading the description, they realise it is relevant.

Wider team

I also kicked off a series of user stories that the wider team of Methods Digital (who are configuring Salesforce) and GovDelivery (current technology in the frame to send the email / sms messages) are feeding into and divvying up who’s doing what. No doubt loads of work there to nail dataflows, privacy etc.

Alpha sprint 2 notes

The second sprint concluded yesterday and things are shaping up nicely.

Prioritising user stories

User stories on our Trello and real life boards got sorted to inform functionality.

Elastic search

The prototype now uses Elastic to search the database of business partnering opportunities which will allow the site some pretty impressive functionality. The current site searches keywords anywhere in the content and returns results by relevance (number of times those keywords appear) or age (newest to oldest). Elastic will allow us to be more sophisticated, (weighting keywords in headline, summary or body copy, weighting by popularity and that sort of thing) and will likely use as the brains behind the email, rss, sms alerts.

I want to explore the idea of using this sort of data to drive more intelligent audience segmentation too. Perhaps a step too far for EEN at the moment, but the infrastructure is there to do it.

A clunky bit of meta data I want to move away from is serving the different ways search results can be cut. An partnering opportunity is either an offer or request, then cut another way, an opportunity is either commercial, technology or research. Whilst that makes sense to advisers and maybe some hardcore users (not come across any yet), it’s not intuitive. Which discovery confirmed. Another issue is that an opportunity might be tagged ‘offer’ but the headline would have ‘request’ in it. That’s not because it’s wrong, but because the definitions advisers (who write them) use, need a bit of finessing.
Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 6.28.32 AM

“Yes, it’s fairly obvious. So mine would go in as a request. I’ve got a technology which I’ve developed and I’m looking for a partner to manufacture and sell it. […] Or it could be that I’m offering the technology for somebody to pick up so actually… how do you distinguish?”

To get around this, we’re trying out the following copy for each of the offer, request, commercial, technology or research variation. (Doing the hard work to make things simple, and all that.)

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 6.31.04 AM

We’ll wait and see how users get on in usability testing.


We’ve started to mock up a few designs in sketch. I’ve never come across Sketch before and the pace Neil the designer knocks these out is almost like scamping, and enough for front end devs to get their teeth into in sprint 3.

Here’s one approach of an opportunity page (reference on the current site)…

Approach 3

…and here’s one approach to a search page (reference on the current site)…

Search Results (GDS) - Selected

Neil and I played with a few different things, starting from the GOV.UK style, then pulling it towards the brand guidelines we need to nod to – the beauty of a GOV.UK exemption 🙂

Next generation website. 5th week of ‘discovery’

Tweaking the prototype and the technical architecture is concluding now.


The prototype has iterated a fair bit and this week we have tested with existing clients, as well as potential clients at a Horizon 2020 event on robotics, as well as a Knowledge Transfer Network thematic event on water and the environment. (Faces hidden for participant’s privacy.)
The learnings just keep on coming, which is great. Some bits of the prototype have proven to be intuitive enough that they just work, others have needed a tweak or two and there are some we will tackle when we get to alpha.

Technical architecture

I’ve said all along that this is the toughest bit to crack and it has to be said that Geoff has done a fine job in doing just that. Current draft summarised in the below for those – like I – who are in to this sort of stuff…
EEN to be v3
…the technical architecture is… er… quite technical but given the various elements to it, I’m pleased with how it has shaped up and the various CRM and API integrations have flexed to make the whole thing work.


David has spent time auditing our existing content. There’s a lot of potential in our case study and blog content, but I think we’re guilty to ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ what we do. Something to address in the coming weeks and months, but feels the right way to go for users, google and our communications.
showing not telling
That pretty much concludes the discovery project. Next step, alpha, where the prototype will be written in live code. Until then though, expect some of the things we’ve learnt to be implemented on this site 🙂

Next generation website. 4th week of ‘discovery’

That’s week 4 wrapped up…

Usability testing

We’re in the thick of usability testing now, which means showing the prototype to users to see what they make it.
Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 8_23_30 AM
So far these have all been done over webex (the purple circle in the photo hides the participant’s webcam – their face hidden for their privacy, but you get the idea). Webex is working well, but we’ll pop up at events next week (like I did for some usability sessions on the current site) which always gets better results.
Feedback on the prototype so far is encouraging. Nothing that’s been put in front of users has failed so we’re tweaking as we go.


Parallel to this, we’re looking at content of the existing site and how this meets user needs. The audit has reinforced the feeling I’ve talked about before: we ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. The next step is to write content in a format that works better for our users and drop that into the prototype for testing with a broader range of users and potential clients.
I’m looking forward to sharing this with colleagues in a week or so – should make for an interesting discussion.

Next generation website. 3rd week of ‘discovery’

Things are coming together now


The several user journeys mapped out previously have come together in a first pass prototype. A step beyond sketches on paper or wireframes, the user experience designer has used Axure to make a cliackable experience we can talk around and improve upon.
Some of the choice picks we’ll test with users next week are:
  • Searching profiles is striped right back to a keyword search, with a couple of advanced options if users want them.
  • The notion of not needing a password is still with us and feels fine.
  • We’ve worked up different information architecture structures for the site aligned to user needs that previous weeks’ research had highlighted. The biggest bit still to explore is EEN and its connections with other organistaions and services. We’ve got tremendous opportunity here, but there’s a lot of thinking to do to make the eventual online experience simple.


We have really useful conversations with the guys behind this website, the guys configuring Salesforce and also Contracts Finder. The latter is more a peripheral thing that we may or may not syndicate our content to one day. Would be good for SEO. Our friends at UKTI’s ExportingisGREAT are a little further along that conversation than we are, which will save us some headaches, I’m sure.

User research

We’ve worked up 30 (and counting) user stories like these…
As abusiness owner
I want toget advice and support
so that I can grow my business internationally
As a business owner
I want toUnderstand the service
so that I know whether this service would be worthwhile for me
As abusiness owner
I want tostay informed on new opportunities based on my needs
so that I don’t miss a partnering opportunity
…which we’ll consolidate and prioritise. We also launched a survey to check we haven’t missed anything obvious.

Next generation website. 2nd week of ‘discovery’

We’ve concluded week two and things are progressing well.

User research

Interviews continue and consistent patterns are emerging. This will be summarised into user stories which follow this format…
As a…
I need to…
So I can…
They’ll also be prioritised when creating and refining the prototype so we tackle the most important things first. These stories will be bolstered by a survey we’re about to launch, to identify things the interviews might have missed. We also spent some time this week at Innovate 2015 talking to and getting under the skin of our audience.
Also, for context, here are a few insights from Google Analytics on this current site…
  • Traffic peaks first thing in the morning and mid-afternoon
  • The lion’s share of traffic is on desktop
  • Desktop users spend longer on the site and navigate more pages compared to mobile or tablet users
  • The morning peak is driven by email alerts pointing back to business partnering opportunities
  • Whilst mobile usage isn’t high on the site, it peaks a little in the morning, as does the bounce rate (people leaving the site without clicking on any other pages).


A few of us in the team spent time looking at the existing processes on the site (as is) and then went through them again as if the site didn’t require a password (as it could be).
EEN without a password
This is a departure from what colleagues and clients are used to but if we crack it, it will make it easier to interact with the site. It’s something central government push for, so we’ll see if it works for users. If not, we’ll revert back.
I’m really looking forward to getting the prototype started. It’s when things come together but it could also shape how things are done on the interim site. Development starts next week.


This will pick up pace next week with meetings with the existing supplier, Contracts Finder (whose code base we might be able to reuse) as well as the guys who are configuring the CRM piece of the puzzle.
– – –
More next week.

Next generation website. 1st week of ‘discovery’

It’s been a while coming but this week, things got underway with a five week project to reimagine what this website could be. The intention being that we’ll relaunch this website in the future.
We’re following a product development methodology called agile which means things are done quickly and tested with users and then iterated to make better. This five week project is known as ‘discovery’ in the trade which focuses on both user research and technology architecture in equal measure.

Interviews and user journeys



We’ve spoken to 4 users and 6 stakeholders. Next week the user interviews continue and all are contributing to the journey we’re mapping which shows users interacting and getting value from the jewel in EEN digital estate; the partnering opportunities database. It’s really interesting to hear perspectives from both sides and the experiences tends to be positive albeit, there’s work to be done to improve the web experience.
Like I say, this research will continue and will shape the priorities, features and user stories we need to address when tacking a rough prototype the week after. We’ll be presenting this back to the EEN management team to sense check and double check that we’re on the right lines.
This five week project will conclude with a rough prototype of what the new website could be. We’ll test it with some users and compare it against benchmarks on this existing site.



EEN technology architecture

Technology is the other piece of the puzzle, and I think the hardest. There are a lot of documents to read, conversations to be had and common sense to be applied to what the best technology choices should be. This is the role of a technology archtect who thinks about things end to end and of course there are a lot of open standards and reusable code parameters to work within. The back end for our EEN colleagues needs to be as intuitive as the front end will be for our clients. While this five week project won’t go in to the nuts and bolts of what button goes where, it will make recommendations that we should work within as the project progresses.
The tech work started a little way into the week so is only a few days in. That’s because we as a team needed to be across user journeys first and listen in on the interviews.
All existing stuff. Will blog again next week.