Saturday, June 27, 2009

Oh Top Tasks, Where Art Thou?

For the past 5 years, the Federal Web Managers Council has had one priority: improve the efficiency and effectiveness of citizens’ top tasks and make it easy for citizens to find them. Why are “top tasks” so important? Typically, the public comes to a website to do something…I want to get a passport…I want to buy a home…I want to sign up for food stamps. They want to accomplish those tasks quickly - get in, get it done, get out, and move on to something else in their busy lives. If you want to satisfy your customers, you put those frequently-used tasks (think of them as the most popular tasks) where citizens can find them easily…you put them on the screen where the web user’s eye goes first.

So I got to wondering…how easy is it to find those popular tasks?

Nicole Burton – GSA’s Usability Specialist – uses this chart when she teaches courses on website usability. It’s based on user experience, showing how people scan a web screen. The red areas are the places their eyes go first; yellow areas second; and green areas third. If you want your web audience to pay attention to something, then, you should put it in the red area.

I went through several of the Cabinet-level agency websites, doing two things:
  • Before I visited the site, I picked one or two “tasks” I thought a large number of citizens might want to complete and then I tried to find a path to those tasks on the home page; and
  • Once I got to the site, I tried to identify that agency’s top tasks by the wording and placement on the home page.

My experience was mixed. I’ll give you a just a couple of examples.

On the EPA site, my pre-determined tasks were:

  1. I want to know what environmental problems are in my neighborhood
  2. I want to do something to protect the environment

Good news. I did find a path to the answers for both. In a section called “My Environment,” I can type my zip code and get maps and other information about the environment in my area. I can “Pick 5 for the environment” or click on “Protect the Environment” and get clear and specific ideas for things I can do to help the environment. So EPA gets an A for letting me achieve my top tasks. But placement should be better. “Pick 5…” and “Protect the Environment” are in the red quadrant – but just barely. “My Environment” is in the lower left corner of the screen – in the green area (and my screen is set at 1680 X 1050, so I see more content in a screen than others may see).

A large rotating billboard graphic at the top of the screen takes up a lot of space. Might be better to shrink (or get rid of) that (annoying) feature and move the top tasks up. Still, I think EPA does a pretty good job.

On the Department of Interior site, I looked for a list or a map showing the national parks. Surely that would be a top task. I thought I’d hit a “bingo” right off the bat. First thing I see in the navigation column on the left is: How Do I…” and the first item is “Get a National Parks Pass.” OK – it’s not exactly a listing of parks, but I figured this could be a path to that list. Wrong. I came to a very wordy and long press release.

I looked through the rest of the topics in the left…webcams, For Teachers, For DOI Employees…I don’t see anything there for me. In fact, I don’t see anything in the first screen about national parks. So I started scrolling down. In the lower right of the second screen (and this home page is way too long - over 4 screens), I found a link to the National Park Service website. When I clicked on it, it went to an (annoying) pop-up that, indeed, did have a link to a map of parks. So I was eventually able to complete my task – but it took a lot of work. Further, I really wasn’t sure what Interior’s top tasks are, based on my review of the home page.

Oh top tasks, where art thou?

I’ve come to 3 conclusions.

  • Top tasks probably are there – somewhere - on most agency level sites…but they can be very hard to find. Often they’re mixed in with more esoteric items or links. Often they are articulated using terms that the general public wouldn’t recognize or use. So the best practice here is to separate the top tasks from other links and to use terms that the public uses to describe the task. Action words (e.g., apply for passports, learn how to buy a home) really help.
  • There’s no consistency across government about where to place top tasks on the home page. Something as simple as agreement across government to put the top tasks on the left side of the home page, in that top “red” quadrant could make it easier for the public to find and use top tasks across government.
  • There’s no consistency across government about how to label top tasks. Again, something as simple as agreement across government to put the links to top tasks under a header, “Do you want to…” or “Most Requested” or “Most Popular” could make the public’s experience so much better.

One thing more…and it’s important. How you organize your website says a lot about your priorities. Many of the cabinet agency sites I reviewed use much of the “red zone” space on narrative, topics, or links that promote the agency or the administration, when most of the public comes to government websites looking for narrative, topics, or links that get them to the tasks they want to complete. Frankly, it’s annoying to have to wade through that organization-centric content when I just want to do what I want to do. I'll think better of you if you put my needs first.

Oh top tasks, where art thou?

Related Links

Top Task Management For Websites (Gerry McGovern)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It’s Time for Chief Web Communications Officers

So many exciting things going on in the government web world…so many opportunities. The Chief CIO is out there with a great agenda. The White House Director of New Media is turning government as we knew it upside down. The advocates for transparency and citizen engagement are getting action. But I still don’t see any movement to address the huge void in the way the government manages the content of its websites. So – once again (because I’ve been yipping about this for years) – I say: it’s time for Chief Web Communications Officers!

There’s no need to restate the case for the critical role government websites play in delivering government services to citizens, offering a platform for transparency and engagement, and communicating government news. Who isn’t already convinced? So let’s get down to the point…these huge communications devices need real top-level leadership.

The Federal Web Managers Council is fighting mightily to get attention on critical problems, convene the various players to try to get consensus on major policy issues, and muster the advocates to bring focus to the plight of government websites. But they don’t sit at the Office of Management and Budget, where policy is made. They need someone who does. Most of them (as agency Web Managers) don’t even sit in the executive management meetings where agency management decisions that involve using the websites are made. The quality and potential of government websites cannot advance as it should until someone with substantial knowledge and experience with managing government websites is sitting at those tables where key policy and management decisions are made.

The Director of OMB should designate a Chief Web Communications Officer (CWCO) for the government and should direct each agency head to designate a Chief Web Communications Officer for the agency. The CWCOs should have the same stature in the agency as the CIOs and Public Affairs Directors/New Media Directors, with whom they must work. That would give the agency a powerful triumvirate for implementing the President’s directive for transparency and engagement and for ensuring that the public gets the high quality of service that their taxes pay for.

OK – some of you are still scratching your heads. What exactly does the CWCO do? Three major roles:

  1. Serve as editor-in-chief/publisher of the agency’s website(s). Make sure editorial guidelines and standards are in place and enforced to ensure the quality of website content…make sure that content really communicates. Work with the CIO and Public Affairs Director/New Media Director to take advantage of new technologies to improve the quality and delivery of content. Work with agency managers to produce and maintain quality content to carry out the agency mission. Ensure that content is created once and delivered many ways.
  2. Serve as director of citizen services. Assess and monitor citizens’ wants and needs and work with agency managers to address those needs. Establish and enforce customer service standards. Measure customer satisfaction and work with top management to improve customer service.
  3. Work with other CWCOs, CIOs, and Public Affairs/New Media Directors across government to create governmentwide strategies to improve web communications. Collaborate, consolidate, and coordinate web content and content delivery governmentwide. Work with the Office of Citizen Services at GSA to improve citizen service across government.

The Chief CWCO at OMB directs web content policy and strategy, with the Council of CWCOs. I can even tell you who’d be great in this job, By Golly (but I won’t…hmm…spell it out here because she’d probably clobber me!).

And what happens to the FWMC? Well, hopefully, many/most of those agency web managers will be elevated to CWCO status - the same way many IT Directors were elevated to CIO status 15 years ago. Many of those agency web managers have all the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for that executive status. They’re ready to sit at the table – they just need an invitation.

Citizens depend on government websites for government information, services, data, and interaction. Agencies depend on government websites to carry out their programs. Many agencies couldn’t function anymore without websites to help them do their work. The people who run government websites need (and deserve) status to improve performance and impact. They need someone at OMB whose agenda is their agenda. Yes indeed…it’s time for Chief Web Communications Officers.

Related Posts

Three Pieces Make a Whole Better Online Government
Can’t We Have One Federal Government – At Least Online?
Worried About Too Many People In the Sandbox? Governance to the Rescue!
It’s Time for Governance

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What Does the Public Want on Government Websites?

Last week, I wrote about how important it is for agency managers to listen to – and honor – what the public wants on government websites. So I got to thinking: I wonder what the public does want on government websites these days? I’ve always championed using government websites to provide services. But with the emphasis on transparency and engagement and a new administration at the helm, is that still what the public wants? I decided to run my own little unscientific survey to find out. Some of the results were a bit surprising.

OK – big disclaimer: there is nothing statistically valid about this survey. It was completely informal. I set up a short survey form on
Survey Monkey and sent out an email to 110 family, friends, and acquaintances asking them to respond. I also asked them to forward it to their friends. I did not collect any identifying information, so I have absolutely no idea who took the survey. I can tell you that my mailing list included people diverse in age, race, geographic location, economic background, and political preference. I specifically excluded anyone who is a web manager or who is an advocate or consultant for government websites. I gave them 6 days to take the survey, and then I stopped responses. In all, 50 people took the survey.

The Results?

Question 1. In your opinion, what purpose(s) should federal government websites serve? You may choose more than one answer.

  • To provide government services to citizens (42 of 50 chose this)
  • To make government data available to citizens so they can use it as they see fit (35/50)
  • To communicate the administration's policies, initiatives, and accomplishments (30/50)
  • To engage citizens in their government so they can be part of the decision-making (27/50)

Question 2. In your opinion, what is the most important function of federal government websites? (choose one)

  • To provide government services to citizens (40%)
  • To make government data available to citizens so they can use it as they see fit (26%)
  • To engage citizens in their government so they can be part of the decision-making (24%)
  • To communicate the administration's policies, initiatives, and accomplishments (10%)

Question 3. In your opinion, what is the second most important function of federal government websites? (choose one)

  • To make government data available to citizens so they can use it as they see fit (38%)
  • To provide government services to citizens (22%)
  • To engage citizens in their government so they can be part of the decision-making (22%)
  • To communicate the administration's policies, initiatives, and accomplishments (18%)

Question 4. In your opinion, what is the third most important function of federal government websites? (choose one)

  • To communicate the administration's policies, initiatives, and accomplishments (37%)
  • To engage citizens in their government so they can be part of the decision-making (26.1%)
  • To provide government services to citizens (23.9%)
  • To make government data available to citizens so they can use it as they see fit (13%)
    * Note – only 46 responded to this question

I gave respondents an opportunity to explain their choices, and I found some of the answers quite interesting. Here are just a few examples:

  • Websites are the primary way to access government services. It is extremely difficult to gain access to a real person in almost any agency
  • No one needs any administration – Republican or Democrat – telling us their accomplishments. That’s unproductive advertising for a cause. Give the people the facts and let them tell the administration how effective they are at the ballot box.
  • Informed engagement is an essential part of an “educated citizenry,” a cornerstone of our democracy…
  • …The more open we are, the more honest a democracy we’ll have…
  • Notification of existing or proposed policies and initiatives is essential for private and commercial planning and decision making.
  • 80% of data manipulation is performed for selfish or wrong reasons, usually by amateurs…Let serious individuals (scholars, experts, investigative reporters) obtain data thru freedom of information laws.
  • …In a democracy, the state is obligated to present neutral, nonpartisan information…
  • …the average citizen needs to be able to express his/her opinions so government can base their decisions on what the REAL public wants and not what some for-profit activist THINKS we want
  • Clear communication concerning government services is essential

What Did I Learn?

Well, first I learned that I’m not very good at choosing the words for surveys. I should have explained the first option – “to provide services to citizens.” A couple of people said they didn’t know what I meant by “services.” So FYI – by “services” I mean such things as “apply for a passport” or “learn how to buy a home” or “apply for student loans.”

The number one thing people (still) want on government websites is services. Confirms what I always heard when I was a government web manager. So keep featuring those “top tasks,” web managers!

I wasn’t surprised to see “data” come in second – transparency is of great interest these days. But I was very surprised to see “engagement” come in last! The more I thought about it, the more I realized this mirrors some conversations I’ve had with people who said they weren’t so interested in participating in government, through the web or any other way; but they definitely wanted government websites to provide services so they didn’t have to go to an office or try to get a human being on the phone to get them.

The biggest surprise to me was the third place: "communicating the administration’s policies, initiatives, and accomplishments" (aka “message”). I wonder if this came in third because we’re still in the early stages of a new administration and there’s a lot of interest in finding out what the new administration is doing. Would it remain in third place (instead of dropping to fourth place) if we were further along in this administration of if another President were in office? Not so sure.

What’s The Point?

The point is this: listening to the public is not a one-time thing. Government managers – both web managers and program managers – need to keep asking the public what they want on government websites and respect what they tell you…no matter how excited you are about what you think the public wants and needs. Do those reality checks. And when they tell you what they want, allocate your time, resources, and website space accordingly. Listen to them. Honor what they tell you.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

If We Engage, Will You Listen?

Citizen engagement is a big ticket item in all parts of government these days. That’s wonderful – long overdue. But I wonder – will government leaders really listen?

Here’s something you may not know. Web managers have been “engaging” citizens since 1995 and – more important – listening to, and using, what we learned from the public. How?

  • We got thousands and thousands of emails from the public, telling us what we were doing right and – more often – what we were doing wrong. We made changes based on what they said and asked.
  • We did usability testing, where we literally watched the public use our websites and sort content into piles that made sense to them, and we made improvements based on their experience.
  • We went out and talked to the public in focus groups and at public demonstrations of our websites, asking them what is most important to them. We adjusted our sites (both design and words) accordingly.
  • We looked at the words they use when they search and then tried to incorporate those terms in our websites (OK – maybe that’s stretching “engagement” – but it is using their input to improve government).
  • We analyzed our metrics – what pages do the public use most? What pages do the public use least? How can we clear the clutter so we can get them to what they want most?
  • We posted customer satisfaction surveys and used “comments” forms to get feedback…and we changed our websites – both design and content - based on that feedback.
  • We shared our best practices for listening to our audiences and encouraged our peers to use the same techniques, so all government websites would be what the public wants them to be.

For years, government web managers have operated from this basic truth: if you listen to your audience, they will tell you what to put on your website – and where to put it. Most government web managers know what their audiences want. The problem is this: too many times, agency leaders don’t listen to the public or don’t share the goal to feature what the public wants; and web managers are over-ruled.

Go to any of the Cabinet-level agency websites today. Look at the front (home) page. Can you tell what citizens want most from that agency? Imagine what you, as a citizen, might want from that agency – do you see it on the front page? If the public is the customer/partner, shouldn’t what we want most (or what most of us want) be front and center on that home page, so we can find it easily?

Here’s a fact – the public doesn’t care much about press releases. Yet if you look at just about any of those Cabinet agency websites, you’ll see prime real estate (the top left and center of the screen – the way the eye scans) devoted to news from and about the agency. I fold into that category those ubiquitous photos of agency heads that are featured prominently on home pages (does Google post photos of its executives on the home page?). In many cases, you have to look pretty hard to find that information or those online services that citizens want most. Agency leaders – are you listening?

I remain optimistic that this is a new day and that the voices – both inside and outside government – who are calling for citizen engagement and involvement in their government will cause agency leaders to really listen to the public – and act on what they hear. I’d like to think that if the public tells you that they care more about how to get a loan or how to apply for a passport or how to find a job than about your news announcements or speeches, you’ll listen to us and organize your websites accordingly.

Please – don’t ask us to engage if you won’t listen.

Related Post

Related Links
Best Practices for Home Pages (from the Federal Web Managers Council)
Press Releases Are Awful Web Content (Gerry McGovern)