I'm afraid there's no way around it, the new youth participation site Being Heard is disastrously bad. It's a terrible shame as creators the Hansard Society are brilliant, switched on people who get it – they're just not technology implementers. (Which could lead me on a long conversation about why delivering web site projects is hard, but I've said it all before). The ever interesting David Wilcox mentions that the site is supported by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which I guess means they paid for the competition which created it (see end of entry for more on this as its very confusing).
So what's so bad with the site? Where to start: It's difficult to use, half-filled with inane content, re-invents the wheel poorly and is destined for failure.
Let's work through some of the problems…. Firstly I tried to register as that seemed to be the thing to do, I dutifully filled out the short form and here's what I got back:
Looks like the registration form, no? It is with a small bit of additional text saying I'd be sent an email. Unfortunately I never received an email and I couldn't login so I imagine some sort of verification has to be done before everything works. Which is a shame because I can't see all of their pointless Contact Your MP feature.
Surely, but surely Mr Steinberg of MySociety has been to enough Hansard sponsored events by now that they would all have WriteToThem in their bookmarks? Instead of linking to or partnering with this cracker of a service for contacting MPs, MEPs, councillors etc they've gone and built themselves a 'find your MP by constituency or name' system. What the flipping point is that? How on earth is the youth of today supposed to know their constituency let alone MP's name when most adults don't?!? I'm truly depressed that a Hansard Society built site does this.
Let's move swiftly on. You may notice in the above screenshot that the site also offers the opportunity to contact the Royal Family. “Crikey, this could be good” I thought. It's also promoted in their sidebar so my expectations were raised to the heady heights of perhaps an email form…
In the name of all that is sweet and good… All they had was a link to the royal.gov.uk site which tells you to write a letter to the listed addresses as email correspondence is not yet available. Onwards and upwards I say. Or not. The sidebar also offers the exciting opportunity to change the colour scheme to something truly retina scalding – see the samples at the top of this post. How 'fun for the kids' I thought aimlessly clicking on the Explanation of the colour links, which presented me with the following geek-speak:
Why? Sounds like a proud geek showing off his latest copy-and-paste skills. Completely un-called for.
I steeled myself to delve deeper and whilst trying to ignore the interface. The forums were a desert interspersed with the odd post about the cheeky girls and posts by grown ups. I nearly cracked up when I saw a 'Did you know?' about Michael Howard, poor chap:
I had a look at the content in the 'InfoBase' only to be depressed further. It's poorly written, with no byline and questionable sources. It's very, very difficult producing lots of consistent, quality content and there's no need for a site such as this to attempt it when there's so much to link to. I include a snippet from the awful article on P2P, the only item in the Internet articles section.
Being Heard should be firmly smothered now. We desperately need to engage young people (all people in fact) and draw them into the democratic process. But there's loads of popular sites, excellent content and busy forums out there. Instead of empty, bland money wasters like the Being Heard site politicians and activists should engage through the channels already available. It would be so difficult and expensive for the authorities to create a meaningful, long-lasting youth site I just don't believe they should try. I bet most people visit Being Heard are e-democracy types like me, not young folks salivating over the Xbox 360. Being Heard does nothing new and most importantly shows no more likelihood of voices expressed there actually being heard by those in power than any other participation modes out there.
Made by kids in a competition – or not?
It's not clear entirely but according to this government page the Being Heard site was made as the result of a young people's web design competition. The Microsoft sponsored competition homepage is in hibernation mode but implies that Being Head was the winning entry. Yet the government page implies that the brief of making a site called 'Being Heard' was defined and the kids just made the design. Ok, so they made the design – but who decided on the content, functionality and usability. If it was the kids then I think the entire site should be appropriately marked out as such. The Being Heard site's introduction claims it was design only, sort of:
Being Heard is a brand new website from The Hansard Society that was designed by young people for young people. Supported by Culture Online, part of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the three Year 8 winners of the national Web Design Challenge have created a meeting place where you can talk to others, learn about the things that interest you, and tell the world what you think.
I'm confused and partly feeling like I've been too hard on them and yet feel like the site isn't well explained and has deeply flawed functionality and content. The Hansard and DCMS links give the site authority – does it deserve it?
Comments most welcome.
Comments from the previous version of this blog:
The Hansard Society always welcomes constructive criticism of its projects.
Being Heard was the result of a national competition in which hundreds of entries from secondary schools was received. In the interest of youth participation the website as you see it is an exact replica of the design and content that was produced by the competition winners (13 year olds). Young people were asked to design a website (with budgetary constraints) that was targeted at 11-14 year olds on the theme of ‘Being Heard’ and that would enable young people’s voices to be heard in the citizenship and political arena. The competition winners carried out research with hundreds of young people their age, the Hansard Society did not in any way alter the design or content of the site as we wanted the site to truly be designed by young people for young people, rather than what adults think young people want to see. Finalists had to deliver a pitch and show that they had researched content with their peers.
Being Heard is a new site and we are constantly looking at ways of improving it. We take all opinions into consideration including yours and the young people and teachers who have emailed us, but with over 100 registrations a week we feel we have made a decent start.
Director Citizenship Education Programme
12:03:40 GMT 15-12-2005 Fiona Booth
Fiona – thanks for your response
I really appreciate you clarifying the source of the Being Heard website. I think this is the key point – for students of that age it’s an excellent website.
For a professional, commercially produced site it’s not so great. Perhaps this needs to be made clearer especially as the competition website is just a holding page now.
00:03:02 GMT 18-12-2005 Jason Kitcat