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UNISON: Decentralising a national trade union

We helped UNISON tell a story of digital adoption inside a trade union; supporting them through an evolution in attitudes to promote a decentralised approach, and better respond to the needs of their members.


UNISON is one of the UK’s largest trade unions. They represent over 1.3 million members in a range of public services, and they have over 800 workplace branches. UNISON engaged Human Made as technology partners through a radical transformation that helped them move towards digital adoption, change attitudes and practices to encourage a more decentralised approach, and better respond to the needs of their members.

As well as their national site, we worked with UNISON on a complete website rebuild, and a proof of concept they could test to ensure the stability of the concept before committing to a national solution. We also helped them react more effectively to the needs of their members, by facilitating the creation of subsites, making it quicker and easier to launch campaigns and distribute information.

Proof of concept & site rebuild

We’ve worked with UNISON on their national site since 2014. The original project was split into two different sections; a proof of concept for integrating the WordPress login with UNISON’s Active Directory authentication server, and the redesign and build of their national website.

To integrate the WordPress login, we used the Simple LDAP Login plugin, and built an additional plugin on top to modify its behaviour. UNISON needed this additional modification because their staff users authenticate against a different AD server (UNISON have an additional two groups of users: members and non-members); this enabled them to change the settings for this group of users, allowing staff to have access to member-only resources. The WordPress log-in was then integrated with their proprietary Profile Data Service, a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) based API.

The proof of concept build was a tightly constrained prototype but it enabled UNISON to feel confident in the delivery of their larger modernising project. The success of the prototype meant UNISON felt assured in our ability to deliver the solution, and support them throughout the rebuild as strong technology partners.

The project began with a full overhaul of the national site, in an effort to rebrand Unison’s web presence and create better digital experiences for their users and members. This included data migration of over 3,000 pages, and a rebuild of their multi-site network, as well as custom theme and plugin design and development.

Tracking members behaviour and needs

UNISON were not able to track a huge portion of their audience through Google Analytics, and it turned out that in accordance with guidelines, computers in these offices were older versions and didn’t support Javascript or font downloads. Tracking these behaviours is a crucial factor in their capacity to mobilise and engage with their members, and helps them tailor their website to the people who need to locate and access the information UNISON provide. We had to take several steps to overcome this. To make sure everything was accessible and usable without Javascript we converted icon fonts to inline SVG with a PNG fallback and no CSS, and replaced all html5 tags with div and/or span.

Branches: subsites on a large network

UNISON is a national union made up of hundreds of individual branches; some of which may be tied to a particular employer, industry, or locale. UNISON wanted to decentralise their organisation and provide individual branches with the tools to build and launch subsites quickly and effectively. This would enable them to provide tailored advice to members in a given industry, locale, or place of employment, as well as publicise events to a more localised audience.

UNISON tweet about their recent TUC award.

During this sprint, UNISON held a workshop and training day to get 10 sub-branches set up across the country. We were delighted to support this training session, and used it as an opportunity to quality test the site and the functionality we’d built, leading us to identify and fix minor bugs. The branches network is based on the same theme we developed for the UNISON national site, with improvements made to simplify content management and strip any unnecessary functionality.

The individual branches need to be able to respond to their unique member needs, so providing further flexibility in terms of how content is published and displayed is important to ensure they’re delivering tailored digital experiences. Now, branches are able to arrange homepages intuitively, with two template options based on the expected frequency of content. The templates enable either sticky posts options (for subsites which publish news frequently), or customisable homepages for static content. The flexibility provided also ensures that each branch member is able to log in to their branch site, authenticate against my.unison, and be granted access to members only resources.