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New DH website: A spoiler and some caveats

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If all goes to plan this weekend, the corporate bits of the DH web presence will be simpler and a bit easier to use on Monday morning.

DH website: before and after
DH website: before and after

I've mentioned before what's driving this work, and some of the things that will change.

This is not the end - or the beginning - of the work we're doing to simplify and improve our corporate digital presence. It's phase 2 of 4, which means you may recognise some of it, and you will also notice that we still have plenty to do.

In some ways it's the least interesting of the phases. But it will probably be the one people notice most, because it means changing what people see when they visit

I've spent the last few weeks explaining the changes we're making to staff in the Department. I wanted to sell the benefits of a new approach we're taking to generating and managing digital content. But I've found myself talking as much about what we haven't done, as what we have done.

So what haven't we done?

We haven't redesigned the site. It will still be green and blue and purple in the same places it was green and blue and purple before. We've removed a couple of the curves in the page templates to bring it into line with some of the other things we've done elsewhere online, but it's fundamentally the same design.

We haven't invested in new content management systems or tools. We'll be using the same tools that we use now to manage our digital content. We'll just be using them a bit differently - using our more agile, open source tools for the majority of our web publishing work, rather than just for campaign sites or our blogs.

We haven't migrated or deleted any content. We've made no attempt to move any of the 60,000 documents on the site - we'll leave them where they are for now. While they are still current they will stay exactly where they are, and the links to them will still work. When older content becomes out of date we won't update it - we'll archive it and replace it with new content. In time, all our content will get the same treatment as the pages you'll see at on Monday. We know that this will create some imperfect user journeys initially.

We're not relaunching anything. We've been very focussed on 8 August in our team because that's the date we've chosen to flick the switch. But we haven't really got a new thing to launch. If we're launching anything on Monday, it's a new way of thinking about our content. And you won't really see the benefits that that thinking brings to our content on day 1.

And there are plenty of problems that this won't solve. The journeys between our new content and the content on our legacy platform will be a bit awkward for a while, however much signposting and redirecting we do. Solving how we store and retrieve documents will be part of the next phase of work. We need to do more to help people find our content. And no doubt, some of the techniques we've used to provide routes to our content - that we have tried and liked on our empty staging site - will need adjusting once we have real content bursting out of the live site.

So what have we done?

Behind the scenes, we've changed the way we generate and manage digital content. This is probably the most radical change we're making, because in doing it, we're having to challenge ways of doing things that are entrenched in the way the Department operates. Liz, our editorial lead, has done some great work rethinking how this could work, and has put in the hard hours reviewing and simplifying masses of content. Users of our website will benefit from our simpler and richer content. And our editorial team will benefit too from a more efficient use of their time and skills. We'll be putting put more effort into the content that matters most.

To manage new content, we'll be using an enhanced version of the HealthPress theme that we've been using for bits our our digital presence (like this blog) since late 2010. We've been steadily shifting this way since a moment of epiphany at WordUp Whitehall last year, and inspired by the work of our colleagues in Defra, No10, Cabinet Office and elsewhere.

We've relied on the expertise of Helpful Technology, not just to deliver a set of tools that do what we want them to, but also to help us think through all the implications of what we're doing. You might not notice technical innovation when you visit the site on Monday. But there's an art in making things appear simple, whilst delivering particular requirements and integrating legacy systems. It can be tricky, and we've needed clever advice to think beyond what we see in front of us, to build something that will still work when we get to phase 4 and beyond. Francis, who leads on the theme in our team, has immersed himself in the project and is now talking almost exclusively in short codes and widget logic.

And we've had to do a bit of work to make sure we maintain the high standards we've set for ourself for security, resilience and capacity, without over-engineering a solution. I've relied on people who know more about these things than I do, including the combined wisdom of Rosie in our team, a couple of days of advice from zed1, and our colleagues in The Club and Steria. I'm confident that if you turn up at the site on Monday, it will be there.

Monday is a big milestone for us, if only because changing our flagship corporate channel signals a change in our approach. But there's a lot more to do after Monday to put the approach into practice, and I'll post more about some of the detail as we go.

I'm confident that, through this work, we'll be better able to reflect the priorities of the Department, and that the work will help us to meet our users expectations for richer, more useful content, delivered in the most appropriate way for them. We'll be more efficient internally too, and we should save money in the medium term.

Ultimately we'll measure the success of this work by how far it helps us to deliver the objectives of the Department. We won't know whether we've achieved that straight away, but we'll have a better idea once we start seeing how our public health, social care and NHS audiences use the content.

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  1. Comment by Matt Jukes posted on

    Good luck on Monday - the building the new on top of the old with no migration or deletion is an interesting decision - but with 60k pages probably a sensible one 🙂

    I'll be watching with particular interest as I'm currently trying to convince the 'powers that be' that a switch to a WP web publishing system is the best way forward and DH doing that is going to be a big tick!

  2. Comment by The year of living helpfully | Helpful Technology posted on

    [...] Seeing the Department of Health homepage: in August, the Department of Health switched its main corporate site to WordPress. I have to be somewhat cagey about my involvement for contractual reasons, but let’s just say [...]

  3. Comment by The year of living helpfully posted on

    [...] Seeing the Department of Health homepage: in August, the Department of Health switched its main corporate site to WordPress. I have to be somewhat cagey about my involvement for contractual reasons, but let’s just say [...]

  4. Comment by Godfrey posted on

    I liked the old DH site better