Sprint 0 Notes - LocalGov Drupal: Microsites

Welcome (back) to the LocalGov Drupal Microsites team!

You're joining us at the start of another epic LocalGov Drupal adventure - this time with a focus on microsites for UK councils.

To win the Digital Marketplace opportunity for LocalGov Drupal Microsites we’ve teamed up with Annertech’s Mark Conroy and Telltale Research to bring the band back together for an exciting new tour.

Background

Brief note on terminology

Within the LocalGov Drupal project we have microsites, subsites, enhanced landing pages and probably a number of other things too. Here’s what they mean, within LocalGov Drupal

  • Subsite: a set of modules within the LocalGov Drupal distribution providing flexible branding and layout options to build rich content areas of the site. Crucially, a ‘subsite’ lives within the main council site: eg: council.gov.uk/subsite-name
  • Microsite: a website that is on a different subdomain or top level domain from the main council website, with flexible customisation of branding, design, layout and the ability to grant users permissions on specific sites. 

Since the LocalGov Drupal Beta phase finished back in October 2021, the Microsites Working Group has been meeting to begin the work of specifying the shared needs for UK council microsites. We know - anecdotally and through user research - that councils might have up to 50 microsites, have varying control over them and spend too much time and money on them. A clear need emerged for a shared microsites solution, a need that was supported by the huge turnout for the first Microsites working group which had 22 councils turn up. A series of meetings and workshops has led to some excellent discovery work ready for this phase of the project to kick off. 

Since then the Microsite Working Group has been formalised and reduced in size to include membership of at least 7 council stakeholders all of whom have time to commit to help guide the product development.

Meet the Microsites Team

  • Will Callaghan - Product Owner
  • Finn Lewis - Delivery Manager
  • Tim Hunt - Communications

Covering everything from UX Design to technical development we have the team: 

  • Alex - User research
  • Ekes - Technical developer
  • Maria - Accessibility specialist developer
  • Mark - Frontend developer
  • Richard - UX Designer
  • Stephen - Technical developer

Providing essential guidance, testing and feedback the Microsites Working Group:

  • Will (Cumbria County Council)
  • Jamie (Wirral Council)
  • Shazia (Blackburn & Darwen Council)
  • David (Waltham Forest Council)
  • Tim (Bath and NE Somerset)
  • Angie (Croydon Council)

Work streams

Acknowledging there are various type of work in flight, we’ve currently identified 4 main work streams within this phase of the project

  1. Business as usual (BAU): keeping LocalGov Drupal supported
  2. Frontend stream: Defining and implementing the flexibility of look and feel, layout and options.
  3. Backend stream: Defining and implementing the content and user access control needed to deliver multiple separate sites. 
  4. The Microsites proposition: Identifying best practice 

Sprint 0

For reasons I don’t yet understand we began numbering the sprints at zero (edit from Finn: reason 1 , reason 2) . The overarching goal of the sprint was to do various strands of discovery to put us in a strong place to begin proto-development in Sprint 1. 

Covid, paternity leave, school holidays and Drupal Dev Days meant the team were never all present at once. However we started strong by setting our sprint goals.

Sprint 0 goals

  1. Confirm Drupal architecture for the content / users / permissions (eg Domain Access, Micro_Site, Taxonomy, Groups, Tome)
  2. Collate and summarise existing research on Microsites
  3. Produce concise case studies on existing microsite solutions. 
  4. Define the minimum configuration options for theme look and feel control
  5. Establish assumptions log/list

Sprint Goal 1. Confirm the Drupal architecture

There are a number of options available for microsites within Drupal, and across the team we already had a huge amount of experience with different solutions. 
 Ekes mainly led on the work comparing the three major contenders: Group, Micro_site and Domain.

Summary: none of the options are going to entirely meet our needs on their own, and we are probably going to use aspects of each. 

  • Micro_site has a very strong user interface (UI) for creating a microsite
  • Group allows the most granularity for permissions
  • Domain allows for entirely bespoke domains out-of-the-box. 

Our working assumption is that we’ll be going with the Domain ecosystem, possibly with some integration with Group for permissions control. The micro_site ecosystem is very tidy and attractive, and we’ll definitely be taking inspiration for the admin user interface, but with such a tiny community of users we are reluctant to dive in when there are many thousands of sites reportedly using domain and group. 

Discovery Phase

The frontend stream (Richard, Maria, Mark) began their stream of work with a rapid Discovery phase. This covered goals 2 and 3, plus a lot more. 

Sprint Goal 2. Collate and summarise existing research

In the previous phases we’ve touched on microsites in the user research we’ve carried out. We were keen not to lose sight of this, so have brought it in to one place. 

Microsite user research

We are keen to see any research that individual councils have carried out too, so please get in touch if you’ve got some more. 

Sprint Goal 3. Produce concise case studies on existing microsite solutions

LocalGov Drupal Subsites

Ensuring we don’t reinvent our own wheels - revisiting the Subsite functionality and explaining what it does and doesn’t provide already. LocalGov Drupal subsites allow creation of uniquely branded subsites within the main LocalGov Drupal site, with rich content and flexible layouts. 

  • Rich content and flexible layouts will be reused in some areas of microsites. 
  • The admin experience could be much improved.

See the full report on LGD subsites on our Miro board.

Mosaic

Mosaic is a “website building toolkit, hosting and support - all in one place” offered by the University of Oxford on Drupal 7. 

It has a very similar use-case to LGD microsites (smaller parts or services within the whole needing autonomous site at low cost; centre looking to have some say over the solutions used by its members)

  • Excellent UI for admin control over building the microsite
  • Good, in-depth documentation

See the full report on Mosaic on our Miro board.

ichec - Irish Centre for High-End Computing

A taxonomy-based microsite solution built by Annertech, for the Irish Centre for High-end computing. Subsites are managed within Drupal, and the data is exposed to JSON:APi in order that any frontend system could consume it. 

  • Site admins can “point and click” to a new microsite
  • Admin interface to set custom colours, logos etc
  • Proof of concept of Decoupling the frontend.

See the full report on ICHEC on our Miro board.

Lambeth Cultural Services

A domain-based microsite solution built by Agile Collective, for Lambeth Council’s cultural services. Subsite content is managed within a single Drupal instance, and the domain modules determine which belongs to which subsite. The data is exposed to JSON:API and the frontend is decoupled. 

  • Proof of concept of decoupled + Domain
  • New microsites can be created reasonably easily and all site configuration is overridable on a per site basis.

See the full report on Lambeth microsites  on our Miro board.

ResourceHub distribution

A tiny Drupal distribution, built primarily for small charities to publish resources. Included in this list because of the ability to point and click to a customised look and feel to the site. 

See the full report on ResourceHub on our Miro board.

Discovery Phase continued...

Alongside those sprint goals we also continued an epic job (started by Will) of compiling, categorising and analysing hundreds of council microsites.  Through this work we have begun to be able to assess which sites are out of scope (for example due to complex functionality, need met in another way within LocalGov Drupal) and which are in scope. 

From those in scope, we have identified a shortlist of sites to act as litmus test sites - sites which are indicative of the kind of site Councils are asked to create on a regular basis.

A microsite from Waltham Forest Council
Analysing an example of a microsite of Waltham Forest Council, one of many 'litmus' sites.

We were able to analyse these litmus sites more thoroughly, and from that begin to make general categorisations about type, purpose, audience and needs. 

Our summary from this Discovery work was as follows:

  • We can offer 80-100% of the requirements of these sites.
    • The remaining 0%-20% to get them to function as they currently are would be custom development work.
    • However the Working Group also reports that they don't necessarily want to replicate the sites as they are, just port them over and hopefully improve them.
  • On the visual design front, we will need to balance the need to create a unique, divergent experience for any given microsite with the need to be able to create a microsite that looks great quickly and cheaply.
    • This means that we will need to design certain aspects (e.g. position of elements in the header) that are tightly controlled, and others (e.g. font, colours, page layouts) that allow for more creativity. Birkenhead Park as a good model of what can be achieved with a simple visual design approach.
    • We will offer a visual experience that Councils and microsite teams will be happy to use for these example sites.
  • There are several existing solutions (including LGD subsites) that offer us excellent models for the config user interface and steps for setting up and adapting microsites.

Definition Phase

After learning so much, it was time to start making some decisions. Our process of defining what we are actually going to make looked like this

  1. Choose a feature (eg site header) and compare how it is handled across the litmus test sites.
  2. Vote as a team - using MoSCoW prioritisation - on each possible element of the feature. See the rationale for voting below. 
  3. Present the findings to the team and Microsite Working Group for feedback
  4. Further wireframe and specification

Our rationale for voting was based on:

  • Council needs
    • Is it widely used
    • Is it essential to the function of the microsite
    • Does it allow site to be different enough without compromising consistency
  • User needs
    • Will it enhance user experience? 
    • Does it represent best practices? (UX, Accessibility, etc)
    • Could the need be solved another way
  • LGD needs
    • Does it exist in LGD already
    • Is it consistent with other features? 

Using this process we were able to wireframe an MVP (minimum viable product) header and footer, deciding which elements were optional and which were hard-coded. We’ve had good feedback from the Working Group, so the next step is to prototype and test what we’ve done. 

We’ll be following the same steps for other crucial elements of the site, in order to prepare them for prototyping, development and testing. 

Through this work we’ve met our sprint goal 4: Define the minimum configuration options for theme look and feel control.

Goal 5. Establish assumptions log/list

As we work we need to make assumptions about how the product will work, how it will be used, and how it will integrate with LocalGov Drupal. We felt it best to write down these assumptions as we discover them and decide whether they are current or controversial assumptions. 

Feel free to have a look at the assumptions log to see what our current assumptions are. They will continue to evolve as we go but serve as a useful reminder for our future selves and for others who join the project. 

Conclusion

Despite the team having been pulled away with covid, school holidays, Drupal Developer Days and other commitments, we’ve made a great start to the project and have a deeper understanding of what we need to build. It also seems that the whole team is buzzing with excitement about the potential positive impact this will have for councils and their citizens - we can’t wait to have something to test with our users!

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