Creating one directory to rule them all!

How we created a scalable and reusable directory of services for West Northants

The opportunity

Over the last year, the West Northants Digital team have been working with the Local Offer service to design and create a new directory of services for people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND).

The results

West Northants now has a directory system that’s accessible, open, scalable and sustainable! This means we can reuse it for other services in future and integrate it in to other digital products when the needs arise.

A screenshot of the new Local Offer Directory with boxes to search with a postcode, free text and some options to narrow down the results such as age, locality and category. It’s showing an organisation called “1Voice” in the search results.

The new landing page for the service is an engaging introduction to the Local Offer — combining all that was great about the old version and making it easy to access in a single place.

The landing page for the Local Offer contains a link to the directory at the top and then further links below to information about the local offer, activities and leisure and the disabled children’s register.

Why we did it

The Local Offer directory used to sit on the old Northamptonshire site and needed to be migrated across to the new West Northants website before March 2024. Rather than “lift and shift”, we wanted to understand the needs of the service, and the people who use it, to ensure we’d be designing something with an improved user experience and accessibility baked in from the start. It’s a resource that people use, and trust, so co-designing the directory was a priority.

The Local Offer directory forms part of a statutory duty for local authorities to publish information about support in the local area for children and young people with SEND, their parents, carers or families. It’s aim is to connect people with support, services and information that’s relevant to them and it needs to be clear, accessible and up-to-date. The directory itself should hold listings such as clubs, groups and support services that are available locally.

Our focus

The Local Offer is more than a directory of services, it’s also content around advice, training, health and support. This helped when defining the scope and the project was split up in to 3 streams:

  1. The directory front-end: the parts of the directory that are visible and accessed on the website by the public
  2. The directory back-office: where the Local Offer team can administer the data such as listings and filters
  3. The wider website content: the landing page, advice pages and documentation

How we did it

Like every good Agile project, we formed a delivery team and Kathy from the Local Offer service was the Product Owner. The project was broken up in to a period of discovery and design before working in sprints to build the directory and update the web content.

A photo of the Local Offer team; Kathy Forsdyke and Julia Smith. Kathy is on the phone and Julia is working at a desk.

As part of discovery, we engaged with SEND services, parents, carers and professionals to understand the specific challenges faced when using the current website and directory. Interviews and workshops were held, and all of the insights were compiled and shared with the delivery team to create a prioritised list of improvements.

We had regular meetings to share insights, prioritise features and be open about blockers and challenges. We also trialled the use of sprints for the design phase, which worked really well and has been carried on to subsequent projects too — it certainly helps to focus the mind when you have a looming deadline!

Our 4 key principles we designed with were:

  • Co-designed with the people who will use it to include young people, parents, practitioners and the Local Offer service
  • Accessible: a priority from the start, ensuring compliance with WCAG 2.1 AA, the GOV.UK Design System and a design that worked regardless of your device
  • Open: the data sits in a MySQL database and can be accessed via an API ensuring it can integrate in to other digital products as needed in future
  • Sustainable: ensuring that the directory product can be used again for other services in future by designing for scale and reuse.

And for those who like to know the juicy platform details, the backend directory system is a bespoke Laravel PHP application using a MySQL database, hosted on AWS Lambda serverless technology using Laravel Vapor.

We learned

We’re so grateful for everyone who provided feedback on the old site and design prototypes, key insights included:

  • The old site was tricky for people to navigate and information in the listings was hard to find
  • Logos were really popular as they helped people to recognise a specific service in the listings. If a service had the NHS logo, it was deemed to be more trustworthy
  • Broken links within listings caused frustration and some were really long; meaning it was a pain to key back in when people had printed a listing out to share in-person
  • The service listings pages needed to be redesigned to be more intuitive; putting the most important information at the top
  • Professionals loved the shortlist feature and regularly used it to compile a list of services for the people they support
  • There are some fabulous examples of directories used by other authorities and we learned some best practice around filtering and tagging listings

Next steps

Now that the content and directory is live on the website, we can use it to watch and analyse feedback which we can use to inform future enhancements.

The directory itself is going to be reused for the Families Information Service listings of schools, groups and clubs. Although it’s early days (and the author really doesn’t want to jinx anything!), all the hard work in this project to ensure scalability is paying off.

We’d like to be in a similar place to Sheffield and Buckinghamshire with one directory for all! Making it super easy for people to find what they need and keeping the information in one place.

Thank you so much to every single person who chatted with us and provided feedback on the work. Special mentions go to: Anne, Beyza, Chris, Damien, David, Julia, Kathy, Lawrence, Northants Parent Forum Group (NPFG), Ophelia, Richard and Terence

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