Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Make the Words Work

Recently, my mom had to have gallbladder surgery. What did I do when I heard about it? I went to the web. What exactly was wrong with her, and what would surgery entail? I ran a Google search, and – being the loyal former government web manager that I am – I started with the government sites.

First one…too complicated. Second one…way more than I needed to know. Third one…written for practitioners – not me. Forth one…well, by this time, I gave up on government sites and went to the private sites. First site…bingo! Second site…bingo! Succinct. To the point. Clearly, the writers understood the audience precisely and wrote…precisely.

OK – so why can’t government web managers do that? Why can’t they edit their content so government sites provide succinct, audience-friendly information? Government web managers know that content is king. They know that less is more. They know what their audiences want (at least, they SHOULD know what their audiences want!).

You know what I think? I think at least some government web managers are so busy and distracted by design and usability (and yes – I know – “usability” also means content) and 508 and podcasts and RSS feeds and governance issues and budgets and all the other balls they have to juggle that they just can’t keep their focus on the most important thing they do: make the words work.

Please, government web managers. Step back. Look at how you’re spending your time. Make time - every week, every day - to get out your big ol’ red pen, and edit, edit, edit! Because if your words don’t work, nothing else matters. We aren’t going to choose your site.

Related links:

It’s all about the content

Who’s your customer?

Connect the dots

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Common Look and Feel – Maybe the Time Has Come!

In the next couple of years, most smart federal web managers are going to start thinking about redesigning their sites, in preparation for a new administration. You remember what we all went through when the Bush administration came on the scene – right? No matter which party wins, the new administration will want its own fresh look and feel. Maybe this is an opportunity to do something that would be great for our audiences and could save money across government. Maybe - instead of doing your redesign alone - it’s time to work with your colleagues across government to find more common design elements that you could implement across government. Maybe it’s time for a common look and feel.

Let’s think this through. We already know, from usability testing, that the public responds well to common terms and common placement of content elements. We embraced that notion when the ICGI issued its recommendations for the content of federal public websites in June 2004. The more design consistency we can achieve, the easier it will be for citizens to use government sites. We also know that the public doesn’t know – and doesn’t care to know – how the government is organized. It’s not really important to them to know which agency is providing the information and services they want. It’s only important that they find it. So from the customers’ point of view, a common look and feel makes good sense.

Look at it from the practical side. How many of you can afford to go through redesigns every couple of years? I know from my own experience just how costly a redesign is. It’s not just the cost of hiring the graphic artists to do the design – you’ve also got to do usability testing. If you could pool your resources and do a single basic design, think how much you (and the taxpayers!) would save.

Is this an unprecedented risk that could fail? Well, look what Canada has done. Most of their government agencies use the same basic design – topics down the left and a common tool bar at the top. The public only needs to learn one navigation system to use any of the Canadian agency sites. It helps them get in, get what they want, and get out quickly and efficiently. That’s great customer service.

Would it be easy? Heck no. Even in agencies that already have everyone on a common template, it would mean a major effort. But if you’re already planning to do a redesign anyway – and, again, you probably should be - then why not give this some thought?

So let’s see… It would be better for the customers. It would save money across government. It’s not unprecedented – Canada has proven the concept. What’s the downside? Well, you do lose agency distinction. And you lose some of your own autonomy and ability to be creative. I know – that hurts. But we have to remember that it’s not about us – it’s about those we serve. If we can serve better by serving together, then shouldn’t we?

You have some time to think this through. Why not sit down together and see just exactly what must be different and what could be the same, in terms of design. I’ll bet you’ll find there’s more in that second column than you thought there would be. Maybe you could agree to a few common elements – topics down the left and a common toolbar, at least.

This could be a very good time to take that next big step in the evolution of U.S. government websites and start looking for a common look and feel.

Related links

ICGI report
Use of Common Content, Placement and Terminology (from
Why Have All These Government Websites When We’ve Got Google?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Knowing Your Audience Is a Web Manager’s Most Important Asset

Web managers need considerable knowledge, skills, and abilities to be successful. You must be an excellent writer and editor. You must be an effective teacher and marketer. You must be visionary. You must be courageous. You must be an outstanding communicator. But the thing that sets you apart from just about every other employee in the organization – the knowledge that you must have and that you cannot succeed without – is knowing your audience.

In my experience, government web managers are way too modest about showing off their greatest asset - what they know about the audiences. We’ve gained that knowledge from email, stats, focus groups, usability testing, phone calls, and public website demonstrations. It’s that knowledge that helps us know what words to use on the website, what content to turn down or delete from the website, and what content to showcase. It’s that knowledge that helps us decide the structure or our websites; and it sends us searching for new content, as we learn that audience wants and needs have changed. If you don’t know your audience, you simply cannot be a good web manager.

If you want to let your bosses know why you are such a huge asset to them and why they should trust you when it comes to managing the agency website, show them what makes you so unique – show them what you know about the audience.

Related links:

Who’s Your Customer?
10 Tips for the Successful Web Manager
Connect the Dots