I saw a purple cow

Just before Christmas we got some unsuspecting members of the public in to test parts of our website. We gave them some tasks to complete like commenting on a planning application, applying for a job and ordering a mattress to be picked up.

What I found fascinating was the different ways each person navigated the site. One used only the site navigation, one only used the A-Z, one relied on the site search and the other used a combination of everything, including the breadcrumb which I didn’t think anyone used. And that’s just it – we think we know how people will use council websites but you really don’t have a clue until you watch them. We keep trying Camtasia screen capture software but when you’re online it runs painfully slowly so we film the screen and just watch it back.

That test was ungainly – the scenarios took about an hour to complete. No member of the public would realistically sit on a council website for an hour and the testers admitted that had they been at home they would probably have picked up the phone to the call centre but because they’d been asked to test the site they were determined to see it through.

The next round we made the tasks to be tested much quicker and we made it around a single issue we were developing – our new bin collection calendar. We also added some customer journey mapping at the end which has turned out to be an absolute gem and something that shows you instantly, not only where the faults are in a process but also the good bits.

We did another round last week looking at reporting road and lighting faults and although I haven’t written the full report yet, the customer journey mapping has shown us the parts of the process that need ‘fixed’. The point of customer journey mapping is to capture people’s emotions – how they feel at each stage of a process. It doesn’t have to be web-based, it can be anything with a process – arranging a civil wedding ceremony, applying for council tax benefit, reporting a pothole, the list is endless.

Customer journey mapping sounds complicated and expensive but it really is low-fi. There’s no software involved, no expensive training and no special equipment. All you need is some squared paper, a pencil and a ruler. Create a graph where the X axis contains each stage of the process. The Y axis ranges from 0 to 10, where 5 is neutral – draw a line right across the graph at five. Ask the user how they felt at each stage of the process and plot it on your graph – anything below the neutral line they felt frustrated, sad, angry, bored etc, and anything above the line they felt satisfied, happy, chuffed, excited. Join the dots and you’ll see clearly where your process is causing problems.

Anything below the line you want to change to get above the line. Get enough of the same points below the line and it’ll be obvious things have to change.

Sometimes there will be things above the line that aren’t necessary for the process but your public like them. These are known as purple cows and you should keep them, even if they aren’t essential to you – they may even offset some bad points in the process you can’t fix for one reason or another.

If you need to use the graphs for a report you can tidy the graphs up in some kind of graphics programme and add smiley faces, little hearts and even purple cows if you like but I wouldn’t go spending a fortune on any fancy software because you’d still be best doing the original on a piece of paper while you sit next to your tester having a chat at the end of the session.

We’re now starting a rolling programme of user testing both on existing bits of the site we want to improve, or before and after comparisons of things we are developing. None of it is expensive, none of it involves consultants or external agencies and it doesn’t take up much time.

Top tips

  • Keep the scenarios short. It will surprise you how long it takes some people to complete a process you think takes five minutes. We forget we know the website inside out and others don’t.
  • Time how long it takes people to complete a task – if it’s longer/more complex than a phone call why would they use the web?
  • Use a mixture of the public and internal staff who don’t work on the website. On average 70% of a council’s staff live in the area – make use of them.
  • If you get email feedback about your site ask those who have contributed if they’d like to take part in user testing – create a directory of participants.
  • Use ready made groups such as residents associations, tenants forums, licensing groups, community councils, young carers groups.
  • Film the test so you can see exactly how they navigate the site – there will be surprises every time!
  • Do customer journey mapping at the end of the test
  • Offer to do customer journey mapping of the same process at your customer call centre and face-to-face one-stop shop. The results can be used to highlight common failures, to compare channels or even be used for business process re-engineering
  • Before the test starts tell the testers that you’re not testing them, you’re testing the process
  • Be impartial
  • Explain to the testers  that you can’t help them during the test
  • Ask them to note on the scenarios if they would have given up on the website and picked up the phone at any point

And that’s about it. I really enjoy these exercises and I always learn loads, even just talking to the testers about what they use the site for, what they’d like to see on the site and what other sites they use.

Please let me know if you want to know anything else or see any reports from the tests we’ve done so far.



Have your cake and eat it

I love food. I love writing about food and I’ve just discovered that some of you love reading my writing about food!

This post is a special request from @Handibode. Back in May I delivered a piece of MiniHim’s birthday cake as a thank you for some of her yummy tablet. She reckons it’s the best chocolate cake she’s ever tasted and I reckon it’s the easiest chocolate cake recipe ever so she suggested I share it with all of you.

It’s from the Usborne Children’s Book of Baking Cakes and for the cake in the pic I doubled up the quantities to make a sandwich.

Cake ingredients:

100g (4oz) self-raising flour

40g (1.5oz) cocoa powder

1.5 tsp baking powder

150g (5oz) softened butter

1 tsp vanilla essence

3 tbsp milk

3 large eggs

Frosting ingredients:

100g (4oz) softened unsalted butter

175g (6oz) icing sugar

40g (1.5oz) cocoa powder

0.5 tsp vanilla essence


Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Grease and line a decent sized cake tin (2 tins if you’re sandwiching).

Beat together the butter and sugar until pale and creamy then mix in the vanilla and milk. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix together. Crack in the eggs and beat till well to get some air into the mixture. Place into the tin or split between two tins for a sandwich.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until risen and springy.

Leave in the tin for a few minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.

Once completely cool make the frosting. I can’t be bothered with all the different steps so I shove it all in the bowl and use an electric whisk till I’m happy with it. You can use this to sandwich the cakes together or make double and you can top it with it too.

For the cake in the pic I used the frosting in the middle then covered the whole thing with a chocolate ganache but as you can see I ran out of time. (It’s supposed to chill for an hour before you put it on but hey ho, it tasted fine!)

Chocolate ganache

40g (1.5 oz) plain or milk chocolate

2 tbsp cream


Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water. Stir in the cream. Lift the bowl off the pan. Let it cool for 10 mins then put in the fridge for 1 hour. Stir every now and again then use.

Making my kid safe online

This morning I packed MiniMe off to her first day of secondary school. She looked so grown up in her slightly-too-big uniform and the maturing process seems to have happened overnight.

In fact it’s probably been accelerating over the last few months and it’s mostly down to one thing – her Blackberry.

Before she got it in May she mooched about the house, sometimes getting together with her friend down the road if she was in, the odd sleepover and many utterances of ‘I’m bored’ mixed in with reading, watching telly and stints on MovieStar Planet.

Then she got her Blackberry Curve (in ice blue, natch) and suddenly the house is full of nattering girls, there are reciprocal sleepovers every weekend and BBM is never silent till bedtime. They can mobilise within minutes to go for a bike ride or head to the park whereas before it was a herculean task to get three of them together in the one place. WW2 really would have been over by Christmas had the Brits been armed with instant messaging.

HimIndoors and I discussed the pros and cons of getting the phone for a long time before I succumbed to an offer from 3 that was better than the PAYG text and calls only phone she had been using.

I have heard people criticise parents for letting their children have smart phones too young but the only qualms I had were that she might run up expensive bills but the contract warns her when she’s reaching her text, calls or download limits and she can only total £12 a month. I am not overly worried about her being online.

Why? Because I trust her and she trusts me.

Over the last few years at work I’ve done a few presentations about internet safety and I’m guessing the best way to make our kids safe online is to make ourselves safe first. I reckon the more parents there are on Facebook, the safer a place it will be.

I started MiniMe online when she was three on Cbeebies. She sat on my knee and we did everything together. By the time she was five she was navigating round the site pretty much on her own but the computer was where I could see the screen.

From there she progressed to the Barbie site. This site lets you ‘talk’ to other Barbie girls in a virtual Barbie world but only using a set of pre-determined phrases – there was no free text. It was using Barbie that we both learned the lesson about not sharing passwords. She shared it with her best friend who wasn’t a VIP but she really hacked off MiniMe by moving all her virtual furniture around and dressing her avatar in clothes that didn’t even match! She’s never shared a password since, except with me. This was also the site where I explained that the 12-year-old girl from Florida she was ‘talking’ to could just as likely be a 53-year-old man sitting in a house in Helensburgh. She got the message.

From Barbie she moved on to Stardoll, Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils. Stardoll was the steepest learning curve but the one that showed we were both getting it right.

On Stardoll you can instant message other VIPs using free text and they appear like email. One night she got a message and came to me immediately because, although she didn’t understand the message she knew it wasn’t right. The sentence included just about every swear word I could think of but it didn’t make sense – it looked like a child was just repeating random swear words it had heard. I decided we would block him/her but by the time we’d worked out how, they’d already been blocked as he’d sent the same message to numerous people. That little episode put her off Stardoll for two weeks but she went back on a little bit wiser.

By this time we’d already been through the rules about not sharing any personal information with anyone online, even if you think you know them. I gave her the example of my old Hotmail account getting hacked and the hackers sending an email to all my contacts about me being mugged and stranded in Belfast with no money and could they wire £400 to pay a hotel bill. No one fell for it but it was a good example for her.

Now we’re onto MovieStar Planet. Before she got her Blackberry she used to ask for a Facebook account and I always refused, even though her friends all had them. We still go on sometimes to see how unsecure their accounts are, to look at the dodgy photos they’re posting and the inappropriate language they’re using. She even gets how bad that would all look to a teacher or a future employer if they stumbled upon it. However, now she has her Blackberry she’s not interested in Facebook.

I’m not saying that she’ll never get herself into trouble online – just look at the number of professional social media users who slip up now and again. But I can say hand on heart that I have tried to equip her for a life online as best I can. Some of that has been to teach myself so I can teach her. But the most important thing has been to keep communication open. She knows she can come to me about anything and she won’t be in trouble, I won’t take away her internet access and it won’t be her fault if she’s stuck to the rules.

We don’t let our kids loose on the road without teaching them some road sense so why do we let them loose on the internet with smart phones and laptops in their rooms without a second thought?

Enough ranting, here’s my eight-step programme to making our kids safe online:

  • start them young on sites with no messaging
  • keep the computer somewhere with passing traffic until you’re confident they know what they’re doing
  • don’t assume that what they’re being taught at school is up-to-date – at one talk I went to they hadn’t heard of Google hacking and how it can get you past security settings
  • make sure that you’re being as safe as possible online
  • young people experiment with identity all the time and the internet is just another place to do it – don’t try to prevent them being there
  • keep communication open
  • teach your child some critical thinking – the books in a library have been handpicked as suitable by experts, online content often hasn’t
  • the internet and social media are a necessity for life at university and work these days so it’s best for them to learn how to use them properly

Useful sites

pipl.com – search on your child’s/own name every now and again to see what’s out there about you

www.thinkyouknow.com – age-appropriate internet safety games devised by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre

http://www.googleguide.com/ – how to use Google for novices, experts and teens

I am available to give the internet safety talk . . .

Putting the social into media

Around eight months ago I had this crazy idea – invite the people who’d helped me along on my social media journey to my house for dinner. I ran it past HimIndoors, he said yes and so the #epicdinnerparty was born.

The original list read like a social media Debrett’s – @MMaryMcKenna, @Liz_Azyan, @danslee, @baskers, @psfnick, @sarahlay and @lelil to name but a few. I devised a questionnaire using Zoomerang and that became the template for the evening.

The guest list grew but then as we neared the date it became quite organic. People, understandably, had other family commitments but as they bowed out gracefully others took their place. Had everyone come, the house would have been bursting at the seams, not everyone would have had a seat at the dinner table and not everyone would have had a proper bed for the sleepover. As it was there were 14 of us round two dining tables and @DCCTayside and

I won’t go into much detail but I had a tremendous time. The #epicdinnerparty proved my point that those who love social media are sociable. I’d met everyone round the table, most had spoken to each other on Twitter even if they hadn’t met and some had never come across each other before. The group gelled, the conversation flowed and the laughter probably kept the neighbours up. The trampoline was bounced on by @Liz_Azyan, the pop-up gazebo was tested by @michaelJmclean, @prettysimple and @likeaword who ate outside and the fire pit had @LockhartL, @davidgrindlay and others’ eyes watering when yours truly threw on a damp log.

There was time for a game of Cards Against Humanity before we all headed for various beds. This game is not for the feint-hearted because it’s about as non-pc as it gets. Suffice to say the tears streamed down our faces and I know that my and Leah’s faces ached from laughing. @johnmitche11 won the game but we have decided to start a wiki so we can devise our own local government version – watch this space!

The next morning we ate a hearty breakfast where we discussed the next #epicdinnerparty, where we should have it and the logistics involved in getting a large number of people from all over the UK round a table to eat. We’re still teasing out the details but again, watch this space (assuming I’m invited).

A huge thank you to @Liz_Azyan, @prettysimple and @jonbolton for the photos and @handibode who made some fab tablet for the proceedings and should have been there but was nursing a poorly hubby.

Also a huge thank you to @davidgrindlay for giving people lifts and to @johnmitche11 for helping with the preparations.

But I have to say a massive thank you to all who attended – it was the wonderful company that made the night – I just can’t believe that most of you have now seen me in my jammies!

A few people asked for recipes so I though it best to share them here for everyone.

Vietnamese prawn salad

The original recipe is a Vietnamese beef salad from @realnigelslater’s The Kitchen Diaries but I’ve tweaked it a bit.


  • 1/2 tsp lazy red chilli
  • a lime
  • pinch of sugar
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 1/2 tbsp sweet chilli sauce
  • large bunch coriander, de-stemmed and roughly chopped
  • large handful mint, de-stemmed and roughly chopped
  • 5cm piece cucumber, diced finely
  • carrot, diced finely
  • bag of watercress or rocket, de-stemmed and roughly chopped
  • 8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 2 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 24 tiger prawns, tails still on


Mix the chilli, the squeezed lime juice, sugar, fish sauce and chilli sauce in a bowl. In a big bowl mix the salad ingredients and then mix through the dressing. Put the salad in glasses or china tea cups then balance the prawns over the side.
Serves 4 but is easily scaled up.
Sweet potato and coconut soup

It’s lost in the mists of time where this favourite recipe came from but i think it was Leiths recipe of the day from the Daily Mail of all places!


  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1/2 tbsp Thai red curry paste
  • 2 sweet potatoes peeled and cut into chunks
  • about 300mls veg stock
  • 2 tins reduced fat coconut milk
  • juice of 1 lime
  • salt and pepper to taste


Heat the oil, add the curry paste and cook for a minute. Add the sweet potato and cook for 3 minutes. Add the stock and coconut milk, bring to gentle simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Allow to cool slightly then whizz until smooth with the salt, pepper and lime juice then reheat to serve.

Moroccan chicken

The original recipe, from Bowl Food, is for lamb but I knew some of the party wouldn’t eat lamb and so opted for chicken. The recipe asks for carrot but I’ve used dried apricots too.


  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/3 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
  • 80ml olive oil
  • 4 chicken breasts, chopped
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 carrot cut into matchsticks
  • 1 large bunch coriander, chopped
  • runny, squeezy honey to serve


Mix the spices, garlic, 2 tbsp of the oil and salt in a large bowl. Add the chicken and mix to coat. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. Heat the remaining oil in a large pan then batch brown the chicken. Return the meat to the pan, add the onion and cook for 2 mins. Add the stock, tomatoes, carrot and coriander, bring to the boil then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 30 mins if using chicken, 1 hour if lamb. Remove the lid then simmer uncovered for 15 minutes if using chicken, 30 if using lamb. Serve with cous cous and drizzle over honey. Serves 4 but is easily scaled up.

North African squash and chickpea stew

This is an @rivercottage recipe from River Cottage Veg. MiniMe loves this so much that when I make it she refills her bowl twice which can only be a good thing with a picky pre-teen.


  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, finely diced
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 100g red lentils
  • 1 tin chickpeas, drained
  • 500ml passata
  • large bunch flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • large bunch coriander, roughly chopped,
  • 300g squash or pumpkin
  • 1.2l veg stick
  • 1 bay leaf


Heat the oil and cook the onions until starting to turn golden. Turn heat down and add garlic, celery, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger and cook for a couple of minutes. Add lentils, chickpeas, passata, parsley and half the coriander. Cook over a low heat for 15 mins. Peel, de-seed and cut the squash into chunks and add to the pan with the bay leaf. Cover and simmer for 30 mins. Season and serve with the leftover coriander leaves. Serves 6 but is easily scaled up.

Lime tart

This is another favourite from @realnigelslater’s Kitchen Diaries and if you need to get over your fear of making pastry from scratch this is the one that makes it easy peasy.



  • 175g plain flour
  • 40g icing sugar
  • 90g cold butter, cut into chunks
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 tbsp cold water


  • 5-7 limes
  • 6 large eggs
  • 250 caster sugar
  • 175ml double cream


Pastry: Put flour, icing sugar and butter into a food processor and blitz for a few seconds. Stop when mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Mix in egg yolks and water. Tip into a bowl and bring dough together into a thick log with your hands. Wrap in greaseproof paper and refrigerate for 30 mins. Cut  thin slices from the pastry log, then press each one firmly into a loose-bottomed 23-24cm tart tin, pressing the discs together and up the sides of the tin, making sure there are no holes or you’ll lose all the filling. Prick lightly with a fork then refrigerate for 30 mins. Heat oven to 200C/ gas 6. Place a sheet of greaseproof paper in the tart case and fill it with baking beans (I use dried chickpeas) and bake for 10 mins. Remove paper and bake for 5 mins or until pastry is dry to the touch. Turn oven down to 150C/gas 2. Finely grate zest from 2 limes. Squeeze enough limes to produce 180ml juice. Mix eggs and sugar, beating lightly then stir in line juice and cream. Stir in the zest then pour mixture into tart tin and bake for 45-50 mins. Remove whilst still wobbly and leave to cool. I like serving it warm with @EquisIceCream, either their award-winning vanilla or chocolate.

Killer jelly shots

These are damn tasty but lethal. Some downed them in one, some ate them with a spoon. Me, I used a medicine spoon cos they tasted kind of medicinal.


  • 1 packet fruit jelly (I used raspberry)
  • vodka, flavoured if you like (I used cherry)
  • orange juice


Melt the jelly in boiling water, as per pack instructions. Instead of topping up with water, top up with vodka. Once set, spoon jelly into a blender and top up about half again with orange juice. Whizz till mixed, spoon into shot glasses and refrigerate. Makes 20.

Breakfast pancakes, bacon and maple syrup

This is my trusty @nigella_lawson recipe that is perfect for feeding large numbers as you can just keep the pancakes coming. No matter how many you make there never seem to be any left over.


  • 2 tbsp butter, melted
  • 225g plain flour
  • 2 heaped tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 300ml milk
  • 2 eggs


In a wide-necked jug mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. In another jug mix the milk and eggs then beat into the flour mixture, alternating with the melted butter. Beat the batter thoroughly to get rid of lumps. As the bacon grills, heat a non-stick frying pan ill medium hot. I can fit four pancakes in my pan so I put four spoonfuls of the batter in at a time. Wait till the batter bubbles then flip. Keep warm till you have enough bacon and pancakes to get them going. Serve with butter and maple syrup.

Oven-baked spinach and feta frittata

I made this the day before then reheated it with a covering of foil to stop the top burning and I served it with veggie sausages.


  • olive oil for greasing
  • 5 dods of frozen spinach, defrosted
  • handful of mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 spring onions, sliced
  • 8 large eggs
  • handful of basil leaves, torn
  • 100g feta cheese


Heat the oven to 200C/gas 6. Oil the base of a ceramic/glass oven dish. Beat the eggs in a bowl then mix in the spinach, mushrooms, spring onions, basil and seasoning. Tip into the dish, crumble over the cheese and bake for 20 minutes or until the eggs are cooked.