Technical Investigation, User Research, Prototyping

DfE Alpha Project

Df E Logo 800

Hive IT have successfully undertaken the Statistical Dissemination Alpha project on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE). Over 12 weeks, we’ve worked with the DfE to explore how best to meet the needs of users. We’ve created a basic working prototype with technical functionality and successfully passed our Alpha Assessment.

the challenge

Hive IT were commissioned to carry out a 12-week Alpha project to explore the design of a new service which meets the needs of users and producers of the Department for Education’s statistics. The project focused on providing accessible, findable, navigable and customisable data sets, which the DfE produce.

The aims of the project were to:

  • Prototype, test and iterate a new service design, measured against the Discovery user needs
  • Explore how to best make a new service available to users with access needs
  • Explore and prove technically how we can develop the full service user journey
  • Engage with the DfE to ensure the new service fits within the wider context of the department

the result

Over the course of the project, we worked tirelessly to engage with the many varied users of the DfE statistics. We completed Observational User Testing, Remote User Testing, Workshops, Surveys, Unmoderated User Testing and Card Sorting to create a basic working prototype with technical functionality, which was continually refined and iterated on from the very start of the project. Alongside this, the technical team began to engage with the DfE Technical Architects about system architecture and complimentary systems to support the new service, whilst conducting technical spikes to prove the feasibility of the new service design.

Hive IT have been great to work with. Working tirelessly to understand our business and user needs, and building a solid prototype for us to take into our beta stage

Laura Selby
Product Owner
Sprint Structure

our approach

The project was run using the GDS (Government Digital Service) agile methodology for Alpha projects.

Following our Retrospective findings from the initial Discovery project -- that our team ethos was our greatest success -- our project inception phase brought the new team together and discussed how we should work throughout the project. We agreed changing our approach to Show and Tells and project hubs to create a more online, engaging model, allowing interested DfE members to be kept up to date from any location. We worked in fortnightly sprints, holding the show and tells via Skype, often garnering 40+ attendees.

Df E Alpha Collage

the project phases

The Alpha Project was broken down into 5 sprints (with an extended sprint over Christmas) and ran from the 14th November - 5th February.

The phases of the project were as follows:

Phase 1: Bringing the team together - hitting the ground running

  • We focused on sharing knowledge, agreeing our ways of working across disciplines and began to get to know each other as new team members joined us. We concentrated on identifying the risks and goals of the Alpha project and defining our vision. We also held initial sketching workshops with the DfE to explore a first iteration of the new service, creating an initial HTML prototype that was user tested - all within our first two weeks!

Phase 2: Iterations

  • Over the next eight weeks, from an interaction and user testing perspective, we focused on developing and iterating the prototype to explore how to meet the varied users needs. 
  • We engaged directly with users who have access needs and integrated the findings into the prototype, creating an accessible base on which to develop further.
  • Our content designer helped bring context to the service, informed by our user testing findings. We also held a workshop to define the new service’s name.
  • From a technical perspective, we held a charting hackathon, chose a suitable charting tool and proved its feasibility. We also explored the data storage and agreed a common structure for the data hierarchy, created Build and Release pipelines, and built content and data APIs. We proved the level of data that was appropriate for the service and defined the proposed architecture.
  • We continued to review the assessment service criteria in each sprint and challenge ourselves by asking "Are we ready to move in to Beta now?" 

Phase 3: Conclusions

  • In this phase, we looked at what we had accomplished and began to turn our eyes forwards, planning for the Beta and beyond. We pulled together all of the documents, artefacts and assets that had been generated throughout the project and began mapping these against the 18 service standard criteria.
  • We prepped and practised for two weeks for our Alpha assessment - culminating in a 2 hour assessment on the 15th February.

figure on computer with graphs testing illustration

our key findings

During the course of the project, we engaged with 52 users in various formats, and quantitative survey data is still being collected. From this user research we identified some key findings that have informed our approach, from design, to content, to technical development:

  • Less is more. Users want to get the data in as few clicks as possible and tend to look at what data/releases are available, even if they are specifically interested in one thing, to “check” what’s new/there.
  • Context is everything. Users want to be sure where a button or link will take them (or what information it will give them) to provide assurances and security. Terminology and calls to action need to be clearly expressed and consistent.
  • Visualisations help. Clear key statistics presented in a visual way are useful, but they need to be clearly labeled -- not just for accessibility!
  • Front load for access. Make sure that the information in an accessible format is presented first, with less accessible progressive enhancements presented as second or third options. It might sound simple, but when dealing with visualisations that are appealing, it’s key to remember that the most important thing is the information.

Beta Team

whats next?

In passing our Alpha Assessment, we’re going to be starting the Beta phase on the 4th March and hope to deliver a new service in to Public Beta at the beginning of August. We’re once again uplifting the team numbers - bringing on board a third developer - so it’s important that we adapt and support that member as they join our team. 

Initially we’ll focus on additional User Interface updates to the admin side of the new service, whilst the general public service pages are built to a full specification. We’ll begin training with the Statistics Producers and integrate with the Business As Usual team to support the service in Public Beta. Through all this, we’ll continue building, user testing, refining and iterating until we move in to a Private Beta for unmoderated testing and feedback.

We’re excited to be able to move forwards with this next phase of the project. We’ve loved every second of it so far and have been suitably impressed by the engagement, drive and determination of the Department for Education to work collaboratively with us to really make changes to their service - huge thanks to Laura Selby our Product Owner above all.

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