Digital First | Brighton & Hove City Council

Brighton & Hove City Council's digital services and the Customer First in a Digital Age Programme

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A good and bad lesson learned

So we dug a particular team out of a hole about six months ago

They had a new service going live with a deadline to be able to take payment or have loads of extra admin – at a time when they were already up against it and really didn’t need anything extra to do.


They hadn’t navigated the path of business case approval and requesting ICT development resource in time – we are currently trying to make this a much easier path to walk up, with much clearer signposts directing the way.

There weren’t any “business as usual” ICT staff available – it was a bit of a perfect storm of no resource in the BAU team. Plus Digital First were already digging another team out of a similar hole. So we made two very similar great new forms at the same time.

Good learning

We can identify and develop a “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP) and deliver it at pace.

We developed a new style of payment that did not take you out of the form to pay as that results in a pretty mediocre payment experience. This one was slick and easy and has been subsequently used to great delight by the Registrar team.

Everyone liked our willingness and “agile” ability to react and help so this will help us have a good reputation and open doors with services across the organisation.

Bad (but ultimately good) learning

We need to hold our ground and insist on discovery work even in these high pressure deadline situations.

Slotting an MVP into a release plan is a risk if there is no time afterwards for further development. It is supposed to be to enable user feedback being quickly gained and the product re-developed from that feedback. We just didn’t have the resource for that, there were already areas we were working on before we embarked on our dig-out mission.

No-one had asked the user.

We assumed the solution would be wanted by the customer. Fast payment would help the team and is naturally something the customers would want, right?

Not exactly.

We’ve had one payment via the form.

The amounts they pay are pretty large in one go and the team think they incur too high charges by card payment.

Most have chosen the payment route via invoice. This was not anticipated as the idea was that online payment would be quick and appealing – modern, professional.

So we totally didn’t avoid the extra admin overhead.

The team knew that we had no capacity for further development so didn’t feedback to us until we asked this week about that one payment.

“Your team did your bit brilliantly, but I guess  it is hard to ignore the most used avenues of payment.”

Well, arguably we didn’t do brilliantly. We did the building bit brilliantly but what an absolutely classic example of there being no point in building something brilliant that customers don’t want to use. We should have asked them! We need to be the experts guiding staff on the importance of this – and making sure that all analysts – BAU, Digital First or any other know to always ask the user!

Well, at least we have the feedback now from customers and we know that they would use BACS via the form if this was possible. Hopefully we can add this to the mix when we upgrade our payment system but I have no idea if it is feasible at the moment. We will have to do some more discovery!

We also now have a real life lesson learned. When the pressure from managers to deliver is high and real and entirely understandable, we can use it to make the case that good discovery is always going to end up saving time and money in the long run.

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Teamwork makes the dream work (and also the new text service!)

It is a bit of a corny title but it is so true. This post is in praise of real team engagement and collaboration and the results it can provide.

Our Revenues and Benefits team are fully committed to modernising their service and totally up for the challenge. We have had members of their technical and operational team working alongside us from the start as well as team leaders and frontline staff embedding the change and guiding each other and our residents along the journey. This had led to us releasing some great new products including online change of address forms, new Direct Debit facilities (more on these to come) and this week the results of our new text messaging service.


Digital First (the new name for CFDA) and Revs and Bens talking future releases

Residents now have the option to sign up for text reminders about Council Tax payment. We have trialed sending texts before paper reminders and found that within a month, 50% of Council Tax and 40% of Council Tax Reduction recipients who have signed up for the text service paid before we needed to post a paper reminder.


The text service sign-up page linked to in the paragraph above


A text only costs 3p, much cheaper for us than posting reminders and much more convenient for the majority of residents. A great result all round. And these results are currently from just sending a reminder with the telephone number to pay by phone. When the council payment system is upgraded so that the payments page on our website is compatible with smartphones and devices, we will be able to send a link by text directly to online payment. Imagine the results then if we are already achieving 50%!

Members of the council tax team

Some of the brilliant Revs and Bens team by the text totaliser!

However, we could make the most amazing new products in the world but without a team willing to use and promote them they wouldn’t bring residents any improved service or us any cost saving efficiencies. The team leaders and digital project managers make sure that staff taking calls receive on the spot praise if they hear them guiding residents through online processes and ensure they get coaching and toolkits. They have set up a Digital Focus group within the service. Staff have asked to have more input and involvement so they can feedback on what will make things easier for them. The systems programme manager is setting up workshops to involve them and get them voting on next steps. It is a total team effort, enabling us to deliver change, create efficiencies and improve customer experience….. and as a result, bring in , well…., how better to put it than bring in revenue….and benefits!


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First contact – designing a new referral form for adult social care

Navigating the maze of care and support services is not easy.

Although there are many great services in Brighton & Hove, services’ eligibility criteria and how or where to access services are not clear to our residents, or sometimes even professionals.

We already provide an online directory of services, MyLife Brighton & Hove and we’re recruiting volunteer Community Navigators with our partners Impetus.

I became involved through the council’s digital first programme, called Customer First in a Digital Age (CFDA). As members of the CFDA development team met with adult social care, we discovered that there was an online form for referrals. Yet it was underused, and didn’t capture all of the information needed by the team. Many referrals are being sent by email, missing vital information that the team need to respond.


I spent two days shadowing the adult social care contact centre (Access Point) team, listening to customers and speaking to social workers and care managers.

It didn’t feel like enough time but I learned a lot.

Identifying opportunities

As I listened to calls and discussed the current processes in place, some common themes emerged.

  • Many people calling or emailing the adult social care team needed to access a service provided by the NHS or another team in the council.
  • Referrals and information came through more slowly from professionals than direct contact with the person themselves.
  • And, as we’d initially been told, often emails that the team received contained a lot of information, but missed out important details that were needed to take action.

This all added up to it taking longer for people to get the help that they needed.

It was clear that as well as gathering the information that the team needed, a new online process could also help provide information and signposting to users.

Designing a new way forward

I started by writing out the information we needed to collect with some sticky notes.

As I created an initial order (flow) for the process, I highlighted opportunities to signpost people to services that were not provided by adult social care as early as possible in the process. Using sticky notes enabled me to move stuff around more fluidly than spending time designing a flow chart.asc-referral-postit-flow-before-build-web

However, if you haven’t gathered already, it was really complex. Following the advice of a colleague in our development team, working with an information analyst I started to focus on just one customer journey, for a referrer. This journey was subsequently split into two as we found two distinct groups with different user needs, ‘friends and family’ and ‘professionals’, before we moved on to self referrals. There are currently nine distinct user journeys in the new online tool.

Once an initial process was developed, I worked on the language and the questions being asked, using what I had learned listening to the contact centre as the foundation for the content and working alongside an adult social care manager. We also required legal sign off for the content to ensure the process complied with the Care Act, a new piece of legislation about how people can access services.

As well as the new content for the form, we’ve created notification emails that highlight the information that the access point team needs, and carefully reworded the acknowledgement given to people who email the access point team or submit a form to ensure there’s clear information about what happens next.


Take up for this new referral form is still very low, though we’ve not promoted it, taking a soft launch approach. I feel that channel shift from email is a particularly difficult challenge.

It’s hard to know how users are interacting with the form, and there seems to be quite a high number of people who start using the form but don’t reach the end of the form and submit. This could be because of issues with the usability of the form, or because it’s simply doing its job and diverting people away to other services. We also have lots of interested colleagues trying it out.

One piece of data that I’m monitoring is which links to further information people on the form are clicking through to. However, aside from this link tracking, it’s difficult to monitor the performance of the form. We don’t have analytics tools that can help us here. The best insight will be from usability testing.

Moving forward

We will need to perform usability testing on the form to best understand how well this new content is meeting customer needs. This is scheduled to happen when a new self assessment tool goes live, as the user journey for self assessment will be funneled through the referral form. It’s really important that we get it right.

It may be that some of the information is removed from the form, and we use other patterns on our beta site, such as a “guide” to provide the information or we change the styling or the layout. There’s a difficult balance between providing useful additional information and getting in the way of our users.

I am looking at how we include information for carers on the form. There is an opportunity to sign post friends and family who are making a referral to get support for themselves as carers, as well as allow professionals to make combined referrals for someone with care and support needs and their existing carer.

Another opportunity is to work more closely with our partners and services that currently require separate referrals. For example we’re currently signposting professionals to the NHS falls service, where they need to fill out another referral form. Could we incorporate these questions into the council’s referral and provide more of a “one stop shop”?

Tell us what you think

I’m really interested in gaining more feedback about the referral tool. If you are a health or social care professional, or you’ve used our new Adult Social Care referral form for yourself or a friend or relative, I’m keen to have your thoughts. Have you tried out the form or would you use it in the future? Please leave your feedback and comments below.

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My digital journey through Brighton & Hove City Council

Today is my last day managing the Digital Communications Team at Brighton & Hove City Council. As I move on to pastures new, I’ve been reflecting on the two years I’ve spent working here.

The digital landscape is constantly changing, as is the way that residents want to interact with the council.

Customer First in a Digital Age

This change is something the council have been addressing through the Customer First in a Digital Age (CFDA) programme, and it’s been a key part of what I’ve been involved in. I’ve been proud to lead a talented and passionate UX (user experience) and content team, who are striving to improve the council’s digital offering to the residents and businesses of the city.

Some of the changes I’ve been involved in delivering include:

Moving on

As the Digital Communications Team and the CFDA programme move forward and I move on, I’m confident this digital customer focus will only increase, and that the team will continue to deliver digital experiences that are truly user focused.

Ben Hills-Jones, signing off for the last time….


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Today’s website show and tell

Hi, I’m Will and I’m new to the council’s Digital team. I’ve been here a couple of weeks looking at our offering to businesses big and small across to the city. More to follow when my feet are properly under the table.

I’ve just emerged from a packed 4th floor meeting room at Bartholomew’s House where we held today’s show and tell about the council’s beta website. You can find out more about the beta website in our earlier blogpost.

Ben and Thomas talked about the reasons for launching a beta, the design patterns developed by Clearleft (which look great!) and a new analytics tool, Hotjar, that will help the team take its understanding of the site’s users to new heights. I’ll leave it to Thomas to share more details.

Beta Hotjar show and tell

Did I mention the turnout? Standing room only – as you can see from the photo above.

Thanks Annie for organising and the invite. If you work for the council and would like to attend a future show and tell, or have an idea for one, please post in the comments.


Improving our online register service – reacting quickly and delivering results

Whenever we develop new digital services, we always put your needs, as a customer, at the heart of what we do.

We work in an agile environment. This means we can react and deliver results quickly.

We’ve recently been working with the Register Office. They were struggling with how their different pieces of technology were working together. We knew we could solve their problem, and after a quick team discussion we promised to fast-track a solution.

Four days later, the solution was in place. By being able to move quickly, we’ve been able to deliver a much better experience for the customer.

The challenge

Birth certificate - apply for a copy formThe Register Office team responds to requests from customers for copies of birth, civil partnership, death and marriage certificates.

Due to a lack of integration between our technologies, citizens had to use two separate forms to apply for a certificate and pay for it. The payment form also asked for information that the customer provided on the previous form resulting in duplication. This often led to mistakes where residents would complete the application form but not pay for it.

“We have problems with receiving forms without payment, and even payments without forms!”
Paul Wadsworth – Registration Manager

With two separate forms, our staff had to try and match up applications with payments which could lead to mistakes. For missed payments, staff had to phone customers and chase payments. This additional detective work slowed the entire process down and frustrated staff and customers.

At a significant time of their life – such as a birth or death – we didn’t want our citizens to experience stress and frustration because of technical obstacles.

The solution

We’ve simplified the customer journey and reduced the amount of time needed to process an application.

  • Customers now only need to use one form to apply and pay for a certificate because it is fully integrated with our banking system.
  • The form can’t be submitted without a successful payment so that staff don’t have to constantly check whether a payment has gone through.
  • Customers no longer have to input the same information in both forms which will make the process quicker for them and reduce errors.

The feedback

The solution has been in place for a few days and the feedback is very positive:

“Since the new form has been created it has taken a lot of stress and frustration away from our team and our customers. We are starting to spend a lot less time phoning customers chasing payments. We used to dread looking at the inbox in the morning for orders and now it takes a matter of minutes.”
Lucy-Anne Allen – Registration Officer

“The difference that this has made to the team is enormous! The time, stress and confusion, (for staff and customers) that the old system created was hideous. We now have a system that brings all the information together, no detective work needed. No matching up several orders to a payment. No calling frustrated customers for payment, despite their best efforts to order online. Thank you!”
Sarah Donnelly – Registration Officer

Dave Meakins is an information services analyst and works as part of the Customer First in a Digital Age programme at the council.

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Usability testing – how we run our sessions

We need to ensure that our digital services are accessible and easy to use.

We do usability testing to find out how people use the digital services we design and build. We record how people use our website and forms as they attempt to complete a set task and we ask for their feedback. This helps us understand how people use things in ‘real life’ and if this matches our expectations and designs. We take the feedback from usability testing and use it to improve the user experience (UX) as we build.

I wanted to share some things I learned from our most recent usability testing sessions.

a screenshot of a display showing council tax account information

A work in progress – our “view your Council Tax account” design

Alex and I carried out some usability testing on a new online service that will enable people to get information about their Council Tax account online.

I was really happy and felt the sessions went well. We met some people, ran through some scenarios and learnt some very useful stuff about how people were navigating through the task.

At the end of the day I wrote up some brief notes on how the sessions went and the things that I wanted to take forward to use in the next usability testing session. I smiled as I typed them up. Life was good. It was a beautiful spring afternoon. The sun shone. I ate lunch in the park.

However, and there’s no easy way to break this, the next day back in the office I was devastated to find that we lost all our audio for our testing sessions (in fact it never recorded). This was despite checking all our equipment and set-up before each session. (Cue very sad faces, and disbelief at how this could possibly happen) Pausing the software before each participant began was the cause of the problem).

Tips for running usability testing

Check your recordings after each participant

The lesson here isn’t to ‘not pause software’. It’s that if we had checked the quality of the previous session, before we started the next one, we would have spotted the error straight away, and been a lot less sad.

If you carry out usability testing, and are looking to learn from this blog, then the one thing I would like you to take away is to check your recordings. Check them after each participant and catch your unexpected equipment/software failures before they ruin your week.

You may find that you need to make smaller improvements, like adjustments to lighting or microphones.

We were able to salvage the situation with our notes, and the screen recordings without audio were more enlightening than I thought they would be.

Finally, here are the four other things that I felt were key for helping a day of usability testing run smoothly.


We use a laptop (MacBook Pro) for our usability testing as that’s where our screen recording software is installed.

We asked about internet use when recruiting participants for our testing, but we didn’t ask people about experience of different devices.

However, some of our participants had never used a mac before and appeared a little daunted. We added a simple question to our script, asking “do you usually use a Mac or a PC?”. Asking this question at the start of the session enabled us to provide reassurance to our participants that they didn’t need to know anything about Macs to complete their task.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Explicitly inviting participants to “settle in” made a real difference. Things to consider here are the position of the mouse and the keyboard. I positioned the mouse below the centre of the keyboard. This prompted participants to move it to where they needed it to be. I also encouraged people to adopt a good posture (mostly pulling the chair up closer to the table). Bonus for us, getting closer to the screen captured a better recording on the laptop’s web cam. (If we had an external webcam we could adjust its position)

Encouraging “thinking out loud”

At the start of each session we ask our participants to describe what they are thinking, doing and looking at as they go through the task, however sometimes this doesn’t happen.

Reminding participants, as they started the task, made a big difference to the amount of verbalisation. It’s really helpful to us when participants verbalise what they are doing and thinking as they complete the task. It provides an additional layer of feedback and creates a powerful impact when we share user testing sessions with our team. Of course verbalising is only useful if you capture the audio (*weeps*).

“Why am I here?” Reiterating the goal

We found that reminding participants during the session of the goal / task that we’d set was really valuable. Losing track of the goal could be a sign of high cognitive load, or that the process design is not supporting the task as it should, we are dealing with an artificial scenario in an artificial situation.

Onwards and upwards to the next session.