On Monday the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy launched its long-awaited report on how digital can deliver a better functioning and better informed democracy.
Their final report concluded with five fairly conservative recommendations – which in itself is no bad thing, as they feel both realistic and achievable. Having worked in Parliament, I’m well aware that what feels unambitious on the outside will take a superhuman effort to make a reality in the context of an establishment that’s resistant to any kind of change.
The five targets are:
- By 2020, everyone should understand what Parliament does.
- By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
- The newly elected House of Commons (in May 2015) should immediately create a new forum for public participation in debates.
- In the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
- By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in open format.
Four of the five focus on making Parliament more open and accessible – though releasing data and media, more active engagement and communications campaigns, and by inviting greater participation in the legislative process. Simple in theory, but many of the dates proposed are incredibly ambitious by Parliamentary standards. I applaud the Commission for laying down the challenge.
It’s absurd that Erskine May, the guide to the workings of our democracy, is only available as a £300-a-pop dead tree book, and it’s absolutely right that the Commission are finally forcing the issue of opening this up, as well as pushing for open formats and improved searchability for Parliamentary data and debate.
It’s also good to see the report written in such a clear and accessible way – in itself highlighting how arcane Parliamentary language and protocol contributes to disengagement. Laudable efforts are being made by GDS and others to make government more accessible, but the suggestion that Parliament itself has a role to play in actively engaging people with the issues, rather than simply publishing transcripts of debates is a sensible and valuable one.
Critically, the report highlighted the need for Parliament to become more outward-looking, learn from external organisations, and to close feedback loops for those who take the time to engage with debates. The big question now is whether they will be adequately resourced to do this.
Similarly, it’s great to see pressure being put on the Parliamentary establishment to finally make data sources like Hansard available in open data formats. Whether this is achievable by 2016 remains to be seen, but it will certainly focus minds in the Palace of Westminster.
For the media, however, it was recommendation four which caught their interest – that online voting should be made available for the 2020 election. I remain unconvinced by this. Leaving aside the many security issues this raises (well summed-up in Tom Scott’s video here), this seems like a distraction from the real issue of widespread disengagement from the political process. Which is a shame, as the other four very sensible recommendations are likely to get lost in a load of frothing over voter fraud and civic duty.
It’s patronising to suggest that young people don’t vote because they can’t do it on their phones. They don’t vote because they don’t feel they have anything to vote for. Today’s news that Twitter will offer postcode-targeted advertising in time for the UK general election illustrates the point well; thanks to our voting system, the election is decided by a small number of voters in a small number of swing seats, who in turn become targets for intense campaign activity. In the coming election, parties will focus their resources on those.
It’s not simply that young people aren’t engaging with the political process, but also that the political establishment isn’t engaging with them, or with anyone outside those crucial swing voters.
But given the UK said ‘meh to AV’ in the referendum just a couple of years ago, we’re not likely to see voting reform on the agenda anytime soon. Politics is about the art of the possible, and we have to work with what we have.
The proposals set out by the Speaker’s Commission set out pragmatic and sensible steps to open up our democracy so that people understand what politicians and parliament do, have more opportunities for meaningful engagement with the legislative process, and access to information so they can better hold politicians to account. But we can’t sit back and assume this will happen. These are changes that are necessary and long overdue; it’s up to us all to keep up the pressure so these ambitious targets are met.
Nor can we assume that more information about Parliament will fix democracy. That won’t solve the problem of large swathes of the population feeling unenthused by the voting options on offer.
Politics is a participatory sport. It’s incumbent on all of us to get involved – to engage with debates, to vote, to join political parties and help to shape the policy agenda. Because if we leave representative democracy to everyone else, it will never represent us.
Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Beauty Project, a celebration of all things beautiful at London’s Selfridges department store. There I listened to beauty columnist Sali Hughes talk to a panel of women about their experiences of – and different attitudes to – beauty.
While many deride the beauty industry as frivolous and superficial, for others make-up instills chameleon-like superpowers, giving them the confidence to go into any new context knowing they look the part.
As I returned to work the next day, it struck me what a depressingly under-appreciated quality beauty is in online experiences, and particularly in intranets. And how because we don’t apply make-up to our standard intranet faces, they suffer the fate of appearing unglamorous, dowdy and frequently unloved.
For a couple of years now I’ve been collecting intranet screenshots in a Pinterest board – over 230 so far. There are some great examples, but a lot of bad ones too.
It got me thinking: wouldn’t intranets be better if, like this weekend’s Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, they were just a little bit more fabulous?
Intranets have historically been the poor cousin of the organisation’s website. They’re utilitarian things. Intranets often began life as a little side project, put together by someone in IT, built using clunky old tools. They served a purpose, but they didn’t do it very elegantly. That purpose was usually communication, resulting in dense, ugly pages of text.
If you were really lucky, you’d get some icons. But these early intranets were no fun – they were serious stuff, and they had the rugged bad looks to show for it. These early intranets were managed, painfully, using tools like FrontPage and LotusNotes.
Creating and managing intranets became easier with the widespread adoption of content management systems. Unfortunately, this often meant Sharepoint. Sharepoint is packed with functionality, but left a lot to be desired when it came to visual design. At the same time, few organisations gave much thought to the need for strong graphic design on an intranet. After all, it’s not like you’ll look anywhere else, is it? (Remember, at this time many organisations still routinely blocked web access for staff).
Over time, intranets got a little better, with text communications giving way to other content. Early attempts were made to try and engage users with more than just text, with the use of banners.
As intranets evolved, they began to provide a route through to key services, like HR, IT or room booking. Problem was, these services were often designed by HR or IT people who didn’t give a great deal of thought to user experience, still less to visual design.
Now intranets aren’t on the web, but they are of the web. And as websites became clearer and more engaging, so too – eventually – did intranets. Slowly.
Intranets began to be aligned more closely with an organisation’s brand, using more imagery, bolder fonts, and embracing the use of white space rather than trying to pack every available pixel with more internal communications.
But no intranet manager can escape the march of progress. In the first decade of this century, Apple emerged from its doldrums to become one of the dominant forces in technology. And it did this through making products that didn’t just do more, but also looked better than their rivals.
Functional and beautiful became the order of the day. And people loved it. The web stopped being a nerd’s hobby and became a way of life for almost everyone.
In just a few short years, we had a revolution in our hands. Almost all of us now has more powerful technology in our pockets than we do on our desktops. The consumerisation of IT made us all more demanding – we wanted better functionality, faster pages, but we demanded better visual design too. The ugly web just wasn’t good enough anymore.
Intranets have responded to the changing demands of their users with intranets that offer utility as well as communication, in a form that approaches some of the cutting-edge cross-platform design we see on the wider web. This means offering communication and services that don’t just work, but also engage.
Embracing the power of imagery
Once freed from the shackles of slow connection speeds, the web has quickly become more visual as brands began to recognise the power of imagery.
We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and because of that images have become the currency of social media. They can instantly inform, intrigue, inspire, delight or capture the imagination of those that engage with them.
That’s because they affect us in two ways: cognitively, they expedite and increase our level of comprehension, recollection and recognition. But they also work emotionally, enhancing or affecting an emotional response.
And they do that in the blink of an eye. Following the lead of websites and social media, more intranets are making the most of visual assets to inform and engage, and tell their brand story.
Reaping the rewards
And that’s because there are strong business drivers to do so. Organisations have long realised the impact an ugly office has on morale and productivity. Studies have shown that a well designed work environment improves productivity by anything up to 50%, increases job satisfaction by 24%.
Organisations invest time and money in making their offices look good, even if they’re not client-facing, because they know it makes business sense. But as the digital workplace becomes the place where we got to get work done, it follows that the same is true in our online environments too.
If the primary place that you do your work is online, then making that digital workplace one that people want to work in will have huge benefits in productivity and engagement.
As more of us work flexibly supported by a digital workplace, then the intranet becomes the primary way that we experience and understand our employer brand.
By connecting employees with the organisation’s brand and vision using both content and design, good-looking intranets create more engaged employees. Better looking intranets can have a big impact on their business outcomes.
The times, they are a-changin’
It’s encouraging, then to see intranets finally embracing the power of beauty. This year’s My Beautiful Intranet competition, the Digital Workplace Group’s annual intranet beauty parade, is already seeing a steady stream of entries – and they’re a million miles away from the out-of-the-box ugliness that’s plagued the industry for two long.
Dense blocks of text, tiny images and 1990s styling has been replaced with big, blod and on-brand design on par with some of the best web sites around.
The competition is still open for entries – take a look, vote for your favourites or submit your own. I’m on the judging panel this year, and am looking forward to seeing more.
Is there more to life than being really, ridiculously good looking?
Of course a great intranet can’t just be about form over function. But by combining form and function, pairing great functionality with an interface that functions well and looks good, we create intranets that have a huge impact on engagement and productivity – and are really loved by our users.
Energy Secretary Ed Davey yesterday announced that in future all energy bills will carry QR codes, which will allow consumers to quickly see where they can get a cheaper deal.
Announcing the move, Davey added that forcing providers to add codes to bills would give people “quick, straightforward way to compare the best deal for them with a simple swipe of their phone”.
And in doing so, he revealed he’s probably never used a QR code. If he did, he’d realise that it isn’t simply a case of swiping one’s phone at all; they’re actually not that simple to use, which is why they’ve failed to take off with the general public, and why this move is unlikely to help many people switch provider.
Here’s how I can look up a QR code on my iPhone:
- Put in pin code on phone
- Open up QR app (which, like most people I don’t have on my phone, but let’s assume I did)
- Scan code, usually more than once
- Redirected to browser
- Browser takes me to page
Which is at least two steps longer than just opening up a browser and going to a website using a clean URL. In that time, the user’s attention is lost – moved on to checking Facebook, or texting their mum.
QR codes have a reputation problem. They’ve been around for 18 years, and for about seven as the supposed saviour of conversion marketing, as a mechanism for getting people to click through from physical things to URLs. Problem is, the overwhelming majority of implementations have been woeful. So where people have used one to access content, they’ve been disappointed, and so been put off doing so again. As they experience more and more bad implementations, their patience for trying again has worn thin.
An even greater proportion of people haven’t even got that far. To less digitally-inclined smartphone users, the QR code itself, with its futuristic look, could be offputting – which makes them precisely the wrong mechanism to target a group who have already shown they’re not willing or able to use a comparison website or switch to paperless billing in order to get cheaper prices.
Emotion is important in communication, and an unfamiliar mass of black-and-white pixels can elicit fear and confusion rather than delight and engagement in people who already lack confidence online (and that’s before we even touch on the bigger issue of the 6.7m adults in the UK who have never been online at all – because IT literacy is so intimately bound up with social exclusion and reading literacy)
The most recent research I can find says that just 10.8% of UK smartphone owners have ever used a QR code. Other research shows that while smartphone ownership continues to grow, QR code usage has remained flat, suggesting use is limited to a small group of technophiles.
Technology, rather than user behaviour, is at the heart of the problem here. Neither Apple nor Android phones come with a native QR reader – meaning 94.5% of smartphone users need to download an app in order to use them, creating further barriers to usage. You can’t just wave a phone over it and go. The user has to recognise it’s a QR code, know what to do with it, be convinced to do so, and then take action.
I conducted an informal survey on Twitter, asking how many times people had scanned a QR code in the last month. Here are the results:
Column 2 (once in the past month) includes one person who “only did it to prove how rubbish they are”. And bear in mind that regular Twitter users are already more likely to be a regular, confident smartphone user than someone who gets a paper gas bill.
As I’ve blogged about before, QR codes are all too often thought a simple solution for bridging the online-offline marketing divide, with littleconsideration given to the logistical and emotional barriers to successful usage. They do have some uses, and some commentators suggest their use in mobile payments may revive QR.
Efforts to signpost people toward information on better pricing are to be applauded. But I’d suggest QR codes on bills aren’t the answer here, because of the logistical, emotional and confidence barriers that prevent people using them, and because trust in QR codes has been eroded through years of marketing misuse.
tl;dr version: will QR codes help people get cheaper energy? No, I doubt it.
Photo credit: Tramell Hudson (Flickr, Creative Commons)
Edit: Terence Eden has responded to the challenge and come up with the argument for QR codes. His post is well worth reading.