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Keeping users at the heart of digital service redesign

21 September 2021

The digital world presents a wide range of opportunities for making connections with audiences. Location is not a barrier, information can become accessible at any time, and new connections can be forged remotely. At Jo’s, our online Forum harnesses these opportunities and for this reason is our most popular digital service. It provides a supportive and welcoming community for those coming to us for help.

Our Forum plays an important role in supporting our community. It is an online space for support about HPV, cervical screening, cell changes and cervical cancer where those coming to us can connect and talk openly with their peers. There are an estimated 49,000 living with or beyond cervical cancer in the UK. Around 220,000 are diagnosed with cervical cell changes every year, plus every woman and person with a cervix aged 25 is invited for cervical screening (a smear test). That’s a lot of people who might have questions or want support!

Despite the Forum’s popularity though, we knew it was in need of modernising – especially as we also had an upgrade in the works for the website that housed it. But change can be met with resistance, both internal and external, so when we set out to rebuild our Forum, we knew the changes needed to be user-led.

Keeping users at the heart of this digital service redesign was vital for us, as we’re sure it is for anyone else doing this type of project too, so here are some of the lessons we learnt along the way:

Prioritising user-led design and testing

Our old Forum was custom-built on our main Drupal website. This website was due an imminent upgrade and so we had an opportunity to refresh the service in a way that would best serve users’ needs. We had two options: move the Forum to a third party or rebuild it on our new Drupal site.

At the outset of the project, we set up a user steering group of Forum members, by asking for volunteers across different communication channels, to help us ensure we were delivering on need, and they were consulted at each stage, including:

  • Research: Individual interviews about their experience using the Forum
  • Design: Feeding back on aspects including design mock-ups
  • Testing: Following a testing plan with a range of tasks

We also conducted wider surveys with people who use the Forum as well as those who had never used it before and reviewed Analytics data to gather insights on how people navigated and engaged with the Forum. Collecting this quantitative and qualitative data helped us to define user-focused requirements based on the areas of improvement identified; design, navigation, functionality, moderation and mobile.

“Viewing could be more mobile friendly and front page could be clearer, so you know where you are”

“Navigation in and out of posts on forum can be difficult”

Getting internal buy-in

Rebuilding the Forum as a bespoke feature on the new website would come with a high price tag, but understandably the team were initially hesitant to move the Forum to a new platform as there was a risk of upsetting users who were emotionally involved with the service.

Carrying out extensive testing of different software options before presenting our learnings to key stakeholders was a huge part of gaining the support we needed to move our Forum to a new platform that would deliver on user needs. By creating a SWOT analysis of staying with the existing Drupal platform vs moving to Discourse we were able to highlight respective features and develop a business case that showed migrating to Discourse was the best option for everyone with better functionality, as well as being more cost-effective.

Supporting existing users through the change

Regular communication and providing opportunities for feedback helped users feel listened to and built trust in the process. It also meant we were able to truly design a service that was centred around their needs, for example a far better mobile experience, revised categories, notification capability, and the more welcoming design which users had asked for.

Combining digital with traditional service knowledge, we tried to anticipate the questions or potential issues which could arise and created draft responses. This helped the team feel prepare to deal with different queries.

Our communications plan included regular progress updates on the Forum, FAQs on the change and a help page on the new Forum with FAQs and how-to videos.

Our research found that two thirds of users who signed up had never posted so to ensure we were only migrating the necessary data, we segmented users based on their previous history and activity and migrated those who had posted, sent a private message or joined in a specified time frame. This ensured content was not lost and inactive users were not migrated, both of which could have caused upset.

When the new Forum was live, detailed emails were sent to users with instructions of how to access their account and any changes, for example some usernames had to change.

Learning from others

Reaching out to other charities who had made the same move was a huge help. Essentially, we learnt that the more communication the better! As well as providing different ways to guide users through the new platform, we adapted our communications to make it clear that the look and feel would be different, but the community remained the same.

These conversations highlighted the importance of decisions being driven by user needs and gave us confidence that we were moving to a platform that suited the needs of our community.


We were prepared for some backlash, but the migration went smoothly and the problems encountered were easy to resolve. Working collaboratively with our Services team meant we could troubleshoot more effectively and put processes in place that prioritised user needs.

How has it been so far? We’re delighted that our Forum users are now more engaged with the service. We’ve seen a 58% increase in engaged users and a 35% increase in new contributors in the first 60 days.

“Your forum has been amazing for me (and still continues to be). Being able to connect with other ladies who’ve had a CC diagnosis was what I needed. When there was nowhere else for me to turn there was Jo’s 💗 x”

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Banner Image: Katie Rainbow on Unsplash

Ellie Hilborne

senior digital officer, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust

Ellie worked at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust from 2017 – 2021, where she managed the website and championed digital across the organisation. She’s worked on a range of digital projects from initial brief through to testing and launch and now works at Crisis in their Digital Product team.