Parking in a dead end street

This is a story of joined up government. This is a story of not very joined up government.

It is quite a long story: there are well over a thousand words here, describing a bit of activity which took no more than a few minutes to do. There are no heroes in this story, but no villains either. And since there is a lot of quite tedious detail in what follows, it’s probably worth starting with the conclusion.

I wanted to find what I thought would be a simple piece of local information. As with many apparently simple questions, it turned out to be remarkably hard to answer.  That’s partly because managing information and keeping it up to date across the three bits of government which I came across in the attempt is hard. But it’s also because of a set of minor usability glitches and inconsistencies, none of them individually catastrophic, but cumulatively making the experience harder than it needed to be. It is also an unexpected reinforcement of the argument I made a few weeks ago that you can’t tell how well a service or site might meet your needs by looking at it.  You can only tell by having needs and trying to meet them. My conclusion is that this is always harder than it looks. And that there is always something to be gained from being obsessive about the detail.

And so to the story.

My mother in law is less mobile than she used to be. She has recently got a blue badge, allowing her to park her car much closer to places she is trying to get to. Actually she doesn’t have a car, it is many years since she gave up driving. But the blue badge can be used in other people’s cars, so long as they are taking her somewhere she wants to go. My cousin is visiting from the States for Christmas. She wants to take my mother in law out to lunch. So is there convenient disabled parking sufficiently close to the intended restaurant?

My mother in law lives in Shrewsbury, which comes under Shropshire unitary authority. That’s an immediately encouraging start, because the Shropshire website is a thing of beauty, with clear minimalist design and simple straightforward navigation (and a project team who show their passion in making it so). What I want is a map of disabled parking bays in central Shrewsbury, so ‘Maps’ seems like a good place to start. The map tool is very well done. You  can drill down practically to the level of individual paving stones, and select from no fewer than 43 overlays, ranging from the precautionary salt network to mobile library stops. Sadly, though, disabled parking isn’t on the list of 43, so I need to look elsewhere.

It’s not hard to find the relevant page – though it’s primarily about applying for a blue badge, with using it seeming to be a bit of an afterthought well below the fold. ‘Where can I park if I have a Blue Badge?’ is a promising heading, but sadly tells me only about kinds of places, not actual places. But there is a promised link to ‘Parking Benefits’ which might do the trick. At this stage the link is only promised because Shropshire seems to have a consistent policy of not putting links in the body text, but adding them in a separate box at the end of each page. That creates two significant problems.

First, there is an impact on usability. The actual links are invisible without scrolling down, creating a sense of uncertainty which, as we will see, turns out to be entirely justified. More importantly, it breaks a fundamental part of how the web works. If there is anything more fundamental to the concept of a web page than hyperlinks, I don’t know what it is. And even if you don’t accept that in principle, there is Jakob Nielsen’s law of internet user experience to consider:

Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.

I wanted to click on the phrase ‘Parking Benefits’, not to have to scroll down, find the phrase in a links section and click on it there. That leads to the second problem, because as it turns out the promised link is not there to be found, a mistake I suspect it is much easier to make if the link gets separated from the text which introduces it  – there is no way of looking quickly at the list of links on the page and detecting that one is missing.

As an alternative, I followed a link which did exist to ‘The Blue Badge scheme: rights and responsibilities in England’. That turned out to be a pdf version of a booklet produced by the Department for Transport.

I thought it was rather good. It told me everything one might want to know about how the scheme works, other than the answer to that elusive question of where disabled parking bays are to be found.  But buried deep in the booklet, on a page dedicated to the curious fact that four London boroughs have declared UDI from the scheme, was the line I was looking for:

You can find the location of parking bays in London and elsewhere at http://www.bluebadge.direct.gov.uk

My sense of triumph was short lived. The result of following the link was not what might be hoped for. Without even the dignity of a 404, that subdomain is stone cold dead:

This page is generated by Parallels Plesk Panel, the leading hosting automation software. You see this page because there is no Web site at this address.

There was something not quite right about that, beyond the obvious fact of the broken link.  I had assumed that the Shropshire site was linking to DfT to provide the booklet, but it turns out it has hosted its own copy. But the version they have is from 2007, now superseded by a new edition dated 2011, which has neither the link, nor any promise of the elusive map. Linkrot is a pernicious business, and not generally the fault of the linker.  I don’t know how Shropshire checks the validity of its links, but whatever method they use, I am not surprised that it fails to pick up non-clickable URLs buried in pdfs (and that fact is perhaps another argument against using pdfs for mainstream content). But since the booklet as a whole has been replaced, perhaps it should be taken as an instance of the more general principle that it is better to point to information which may change at times and in ways you don’t control. There is no excuse though for Directgov closing a previously publicised sub-domain without leaving so much as a redirection to where the current content is to be found.

I was also struck that the 2011 version on Directgov is much inferior as a web page than the old 2007 version on the Shropshire site. Shropshire has one page to a screen, giving proportions which are about right, so filling the screen with clear content.  Directgov has a double page to a screen view, completely out of proportion to any screen I have ever seen. To complete the oddity of it all, the new version also has a link to where copies can be downloaded from. Except that it is a DfT link, not a Directgov link, despite the content being very clearly addressed to a citizen audience.  And except that although the link has been made clickable, it runs over two lines, and only the first line is used, so taking anybody who tries to use it gets to the DfT home page rather than the topic page. And while I am being pernickety, the DfT page which is, I assume, the canonical source describes the booklet as published on 23 March 2010, despite linking to the May 2011 version.

But back to Directgov, where it turns out that despite the demise of the sub-site, there is a blue badge page. It even gave me the extremely useful (but all too rarely provided) information that the thing I was looking for (even if I didn’t know that that was what I was looking for) doesn’t exist. Better still, it says it can tell me where to look instead.

If you live in England, see the link ‘Locate parking bays for registered disabled drivers’ to find Blue Badge parking bays

This is information held at local authority level, so it needs to know the area I am interested in and two screens later it successfully finds the right link – to the general blue badge page on the Shropshire site which I had been on half a dozen steps earlier. Beyond the general frustration of being sent round in a circle, it is also important to spot that this came of answering a question different from the one asked. The Directgov offer was to take me to a page where I could locate parking bays.  But it didn’t – and couldn’t – deliver on that offer because it has no control over whether local authorities provide it. Perhaps other local authorities do, but that doesn’t help me with knowing where one might park in Shrewsbury.

My cousin decided they would take a taxi to the restaurant.

16 comments

  1. A Happy ( if mildly frustrating ) New Year

    It’s intriguing

    If you google what you wanted

    “…a map of disabled parking bays in central Shrewsbury…”

    you will see your post occupies the top two slots, and the third is

    http://www.visitshrewsbury.com/visitorinfo.php

    Scroll down 3/4 of the page and you reach

    ” Wheelchair Mobility

    Shrewsbury has designated on-street parking spaces for disabled badge holders. These spaces cab be found on Shoplatch, Castle Street, St. Mary’s Street, Claremont Street and Roushill. Parking is free if displaying the badge and clock for the period as indicated on the signs……”

    Alternatively, you could ring the chosen restaurant and ask them to look outside ???

    Or Age Concern Shrewsbury ???

    Does the voluntary or private sector do this quicker than the public ?

    And I imagine each of the UK’s 400 local authorities answer your original question differently.

    Roll on universality.

  2. You could tweet your query and use the power of the crowd to answer your query? That would have been an interesting experiment.

  3. I could write a detailed response to this fantastic piece. I could walk you through the reasons why we made some of the UX decisions or the technical constraints that have contributed to this particular example but I think instead I’ll say this: we must and will do better. This goes to the top of the list for 2012.

    • Good, positive, response Martin and I applaud you for taking that approach. It isn’t, though, about shropshire – I have had similar experiences around the country. I’m with Stefan – its about joined up government (and about it not being joined up). Perhaps a geotag for every disabled parking location that can be layered into any google maps location?

    • Thank you for that gracious response and for taking the post in the spirit it was intended. But as Alan says, this isn’t about you or anybody else striving just a bit harder or about any particular site; it’s about how we collectively find a better way of getting the pieces to fit together. That would be hard in any environment, but it is particularly so when valuing variety and autonomy are part of the system we are working with. And see also the comments on the Govloop version of this post, which are very much on this point.

  4. Isn’t the key point here that Google provides the answer more effectively than the local authority and directgov websites, and that nowadays public sector sites should be harnessing this sort of third party facility and not creating their own? And isn’t this the whole philosophy of beta.gov and the approach of the Government Digital Service?

    • Well, yes to lots of this. My perfect answer would be tagging of all “public assets” so that they can be indexed and located on any base mapping service. Certainly, attempting any more “all in one place” sites, or databases, or convoluted nested links…oh let’s just stop the madness, hey?

      If every service owner saw a priority in tagging the physicality of their service delivery (rather than, say, spurious information on costs, just to seize a bugbear out of the air) we’d soon have anchors to which other metadata could attach.

      I’ve been banging on about this for ages. *sigh* *yawn* etc.

    • But it doesn’t.

      I am all in favour of harnessing third party services to organise, present and find material and of course Google is generally very good at that. But that only works if the material is there to be found and is set out to be findable. As Alan and Paul suggest, the really valuable thing which the public sector could produce would be a geocoded data set, but in its absence, google sent me down the path described in the post (and interestingly, when I did look at the page Alex links to in his comment, I missed the information I was looking for, even though I knew it was there, because it doesn’t come under (or close to) street parking, but comes later under ‘wheelchair mobility’, and my mother in law is not a wheelchair user).

      I don’t on the whole think the solution is for the public sector to withdraw from directly providing information about what they do. I wrote a while ago about the possible options for government, ranging from being a monopoly interface provider to no being an interface provider at all. As I wrote then:

      My instinctive view remains that government cannot abdicate the responsibility for user interfaces, whether online or in any other channel. It has a responsibility to make sure that they exist, that they are usable, that they are accurate and up to date and that they are where citizens and services users expect to find them. The possible paradox is that government has no means of discharging that responsibility in an option four world, even if it were the case that the absence of the elephant led to a flowering of innovation and a better set of solutions.

      But the question is an important one which we must keep coming back to, as there isn’t a single answer, and any answer changes over time.

    • I agree in principle with the notion ‘google does that very well, so we shouldn’t be trying to duplicate the effort badly’, and indeed spend a good deal of time trying to pursuade people to host photo libraries on flickr, video libraries on youtube, and indeed gis libraries on google maps rather than paying a lot of money to produce a poor relation.

      However, there is the caveat of the problem with outsourcing one’s data that should the company one is outsourcing to cease trading, or change its terms of service, or change ownership – and then change how the service works, start charging for what was once free, or shut it down entirely, then you’re a bit stuffed. How many people got caught out in deliciousgate, when yahoo offloaded it and the new owners broke a fundamental part of how the service works?

      Even solutions such as wikipedia or open street map aren’t without their potential pitfalls – with open street map’s recent change of license, I wonder how much data is simply going to be removed because the person who originally put it there has moved on and their successor – if they have one – doesn’t realise the importance of signing up to the new license?

      So the moral is, yes, outsource your data to a third party who can do the job much better than you can, but always retain a backup of it – and always have a plan b up your sleave, ready to switch to in a moment if your primary solution fails.

  5. Before I started working at the Government Digital Service, I prototyped a site to help disabled people get around and lead active, social, lives. This included location of disabled parking, how close that parking was to their destination, and what the route and terrain was like from their parking space to their destination.

    Read more about the research we did, at http://nicepaul.com/access

    My research and prototype got them funded, though I had nothing to do with the subsequent development of the live site which now lives here (in beta, at least) – http://gogenie.org/

    Paul

  6. I guess the parking bay information would be very helpful in a lot of cases. But worth remembering that Blue badge holders can park on single and double yellow lines generally (max 3 hours, unless loading restrictions, from memory). Knowing where I can’t park becomes more important than where I can, a lot of the time.

      • Ah-ha! Isn’t that interesting?! If you understood the options before starting the search would a fixation on finding a BB bays have been avoided? You (the service user) are surely the most important part of the equation and so isn’t your understanding of the service the most important factor? So while Google, Directgov, The LA, etc can strive to provide very specific localised information, can we not improve an underlying problem by better equipping users in the first place?

        Is the whole thing also a fine example of knowing the right questions to ask being more important than all the answers being out there. What do you think? How would you balance effort put into the quality of the tools and info sources at service users’ disposal vs making them better at solving such problems?

        Give a man a fish, no, make that a good map of Shrewsbury parking and he’ll park in Shrewsbury, give him the skill to interpret parking schemes and he’ll park anywhere (legally we hope).

        • Spot on. Finding a way of telling somebody they have asked the wrong question is often the best way of helping them to a good answer. That’s why I really liked (in an odd kind of way) the fact that Directgov explicitly says that the map doesn’t exist any more, rather than just removing all reference to it. It’s also why I have often wanted instruction manuals to have a section on what the product can’t do, because it is so easy to spend as much time looking for how to do something which can’t be done as finding out how to do the things which can be done.

          If you want to go by tube from Queensway to Baywsater, a tube map will tell you how to do it. But a well informed human will tell you to walk.

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