The new web site for the Houses of the Oireachtas is a significant step forward in design and functionality, applying the principles of user-centred design and open data in order to let citizens into the process of law making, a process that is at the heart of Irish democracy.
The site is a conduit for journalists, researchers, NGOs and citizens to see what laws are being made and how they are being shaped. It’s also a data-driven tool that is essential for TDs, Senators, Oireachtas staff and public servants in other government departments to get their jobs done. Working with the Houses of the Oireachtas staff and partners, Fujitsu, our approach to the project reflected the public importance of the project and the high visibility it would enjoy.
The updated layout and re-structuring is really excellent, so thank you to all who have worked on this project, which must be a massive task.
The design process placed the users and their work at the heart of the project. To that end we established several design principles to guide our work throughout the process.
1. Search and filter
The old Oireachtas site organised the content by date so that you had to know exactly when something happened to find it. We created a set of filters that allowed users to build a natural-language query for each type of content, for example: “Show Seanad Debates for the Last 30 sittings”.
2. Search within
The old site was crippled by poorly implemented search, so we determined that the search on the new site must be excellent. We implemented the Elastic Search engine, which is designed to learn what people are looking for and improve results through use. The more people search on the new site, the better the search will become.
3. Plain English
The work of parliament involves a lot of unique and unusual procedures and, as a result, is full of a lot of procedural terminology. We determined to use plain English wherever possible, starting with the navigation. The top-level categories set out the work of the Oireachtas as clearly as possible: ‘Bills & Acts’, ‘Debates’, ‘TDs & Senators’, ‘Committees’ and ‘Visit & Learn’.
4. Show the people
The Oireachtas is a human organisation, but the image projected on the old site gave the impression of empty buildings and corridors. We shot a new portfolio of photography for the new site that feature the staff and members who make the organisation work.
5. Open access, open data
The work done in Leinster House is done in the public interest and is in the public domain, so our design took every opportunity to share as much of that content as possible, as quickly as possible. A set of open data APIs have been created that allow anyone to consume some of the Oireachtas core content (debates, bills and acts, members) and use it in 3rd party applications. The team also reached out to site owners who were scraping the old site for content, to get their input into this open data system, to ensure it supported their needs.
6. Typography is the key tool
Every day the Seanad, Dáil and Committees sit adds hundreds of thousands of words of new content to the public record. This is a text-heavy site, so we determined that the main design feature should be the typography. We reimagined the Oireachtas brand in a small palette of muted colours that took a cue from the Oireachtas TV brand, which allowed the text on the pages to stand out. The typefaces selected and their setting on each page was optimised and tested to promote readability in the long documents and debates the organisation publishes.
Integration with other channels
Events in the Oireachtas are often at the heart of the news cycle, so integration with news media and social media channels was central to our thinking about the new site.
Proceedings in the Seanad and the Dáil chambers and in the four Committee rooms are broadcast on traditional news media and on the Oireachtas TV cable channel. The new site also makes this video content available to the public with easier access to the latest debates and highlights from the Oireachtas TV materials as well as to archived video material and documentary videos about the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Our research with members and their staff showed that each TD has effectively become their own web-driven video and social media channel. The new site integrates social sharing functionality so that it’s easy to share snippets of debates and other materials, including video, from the site, on a wide range of social media as soon as that material is published online.
The site went live in mid 2018 and reaction to it has been excellent validating the approach taken and the design principles followed. In addition to the stats seen above, we've noted the following:
- In 2015, 65% of all queries by email/phone could have been found on the website. By 2019, this number had dropped to 25%.
- In 2019, the total time staff spent answering queries was down by 48%, thereby making the unit more productive.
- Most people are now finding what they're looking for independently on the website. In 2019, queries from members of the public had dropped to 24%, whereas in 2015 46% of all queries were from members of the public.
Perhaps the most important result of this project to date has been the building of a very capable digital team in the Houses of the Oireachtas with a credible digital and open data strategy, and an exciting roadmap that sees this new site as one instalment in an ambitious, long-term digital strategy.