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Seek first to understand

The Key logo

The Key is a national information service for school leaders. It provides instant answers to their questions on every aspect of managing a school.

As schools become less dependent on local authorities, it’s an increasingly important source of knowledge and ideas for professionals who might be writing an anti-bullying policy in the morning and negotiating a catering contract in the afternoon.

We were there for its launch in 2007 and we’re proud to have helped it evolve over more than ten years. The Key now supports almost half the schools in England. Registered users include 75,000 school leaders and 17,000 governors, who have access to 5,000 original articles and resources every month.

Understanding our users

With so many users accessing so much content over such a long time, we have learned a lot about what they want to know. We found that most head teachers ask pretty much the same questions, so we could map clear patterns of related knowledge.

We also built a vivid picture of how they preferred to use the site. As mobile devices started to gain ground on desktops and laptops, we saw that people were increasingly visiting The Key on their phone or tablet, out of school hours, and often at the weekend. 7pm on Sunday was a particular favourite. This gave us some clear direction on how to make the site more engaging and easier to navigate.

We aren’t fans of change for change’s sake. We prefer the principle of only reworking something if it solves a problem or is a clear improvement. But by 2016 we knew this was a transformation whose time had come. The Key needed to present new types of information in new ways. The answer was a better content management system that recognised how people were actually using it. (We moved from Plone to Wagtail, if you’re interested.)

Technologies: Django and Wagtail
Duration: 9 months
Team size: 5 devs
Hosted: On premises

I use it literally every single day without fail.

Martin Katz, Beis Yaakov High School, Manchester

From the horse’s mouth

Of course, users don’t really like change either. It’s hard to move them from a familiar layout to a new design. We had to keep The Key’s old character, while making it more satisfying to use. This involved transferring more than 30,000 pages across two websites, complete with full page history, making sure we preserved all of their content and metadata.

Having gone into schools, talked to users and watched how they behaved, we also made changes we knew they would appreciate. For example, we removed a left-hand navigation column that was useful in theory but ignored in practice. We made sure that “See also” links appeared at the end of an article, as well as the beginning, to make it easier for people to pursue a particular theme. We made the homepage more like a magazine cover, promoting eye-catching news and topical content. And we added a “mini homepage” below each article to entice people to explore further. The overall effect was a site that seemed to read users’ minds — and they are staying longer and interacting more.

As a result a valuable source of information has become indispensable to today’s school leaders — and ready to adapt to their changing needs.

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