Monday, November 30, 2009

The Power of Watching and Listening

Gerry McGovern’s newsletter this week is all about the power of watching and listening to the people who use your website. According to Gerry, observing actual behavior really is the only way to know how successful (or not) your site is. It’s all about making sure people can find and do what they want, as fast as possible, and come away with the right answer. It’s all about making sure you don’t waste your audience’s time.

Pretty simple – right? Makes perfect sense. Yet how many web managers and web contributors and - dare I ask? - government managers who want their content to be prominent on agency websites have actually watched and listened to people using their websites?

In almost every class I teach, I ask how many people do - or have done - usability testing (which is using various techniques to watch and listen to people using your website). I’m always surprised how few hands go up. Government websites have been around for 15 years now, but we’re still trying to sit in our offices and second-guess our audiences. Or worse, we use our sites to tell our audiences what we think they should know. Now, there may be some people out there who want government to decide what they should know. But I don’t know those people.

From early on, I knew that listening was key to the success of a web manager. It probably came from those counseling courses I took in grad school. I took to heart what people said or asked in their emails and what they said when I talked to them on the phone or at public demonstrations of HUD’s website. I used what I learned, and I think it helped.

But I confess…it took me years to actually watch someone use the site, in a usability setting. And when I did, I was stunned at what I saw. Sure – some content worked well. Yay! But other content that I thought we had made so obvious and easy, wasn’t. Words that we thought everyone understood were confusing. People took wrong turns. People thought through problems differently than we had. People wasted their time, trying to get an answer on our website. After watching for 15 minutes, I got religion.

Do yourself – and your web audience – a favor. Put aside those site traffic reports and customer satisfaction surveys, and spend some time really listening to and watching people use your website. What you learn will give you the power to make your site better.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

5 Government Services to be Thankful For

I crusade for better online government service because I have seen what we can do, when we put our minds (and common sense) to it. Here are 5 examples of really great citizen services available right now.
  1. Airport status and delays: I use this tool every time someone I know is flying. At a glance, you can see where airports are running behind, so you can adjust your expectations accordingly. Sometimes this service is more effective in predicting flight delays than the airlines’ own “flight status” tools.
  2. Hold my mail: Most of us leave home on business trips or vacations, at some time. This convenient little service lets you take care of holding your mail – and releasing the hold – in seconds. I love its simplicity!
  3. Find sex offenders living in your neighborhood: OK – this is a little clunky. You have to agree to the terms before you get to the form. Then the default search option is to search by a specific name. You have to figure out how to search by zip code, which – to me – should be the default. But all-in-all, it is easy to use; and the results are helpful. Good service for house-hunters, parents, and neighborhood watch groups.
  4. Ask an expert about food safety: This is a pretty simple service that offers multiple ways to find out if the foods you are eating – or want to eat – are safe. It gives you options to call 24-hour, 7-day hotlines; type in a question and see if the FAQ database can help; or, within fairly tight time limits, chat online with an expert. You also can find out about food recalls and sign up for alerts. Turkey day…I’m thinking this might be a good URL to keep handy!
  5. Real-time chat on I am a huge fan of real-time chat services. It lets citizens talk to a human being, when they can’t – or don’t want to - wade through all the printed material. It really makes you feel as though your government cares about you, personally. I’ve used the chat a couple of times, and I found it pretty satisfying. I didn’t have to wait long in line. The reps were able to understand my questions fairly quickly. And they were able to point me in the right direction for answers, even if they couldn’t provide the answers themselves. Hours are weekdays only; but they do go until 8 pm ET, so people can still use the service after they get home from work. I wish every agency provided this service. And I wish it were available 24-7.
What do these services have in common? They have a simple purpose, and they’re easy to use (if not always easy to find). The people who wrote these web pages understand what citizens want and know how to provide it in ways that make sense to them.

‘Tis the season of thanksgiving – so I truly am thankful for these smart, effective, citizen-oriented services. And now, my Christmas list:  let’s see more!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Do the Service - Earn the Image

Two recent articles jumped out at me this week. The first is an article in Government Executive Magazine summarizing the results of a recent Gallup poll on citizens’ satisfaction with their government. They aren’t. The second was a blog piece by Alex Hawkinson on Social Media Today: “Why Customer Service Is the New Marketing.” OK. Let’s connect the dots.

Citizens aren’t happy with their government. Why? “The poll found that the most important factor in the public's satisfaction is an agency's ability to resolve problems reasonably. Other categories included, ‘Willing to work with me,’ and ‘Delivers on promises.’" In other words, the public wants better customer service. Though the article didn’t go on to define what that means, I’m guessing they want to find government services easily. They want straight answers when they ask questions. They want government to listen to them and react to what they’re saying in a personal way. They want to understand what the government says back, so they can use it to fix their problems. They want government to follow through – in a timely way. They want the government to be reasonable. That means reasonable from a citizen’s point of view – not government’s point of view.

So government has a bad image with the public, at least according to this poll. Hopefully, it wants to improve that image. How do you do that? Hawkinson nails it. If you want to promote yourself, then provide great customer service. You start with the great customer service. You earn the image. You don’t earn the image by trumpeting how great you are. You earn it by being great. Period.

Oh – by the way…according to the Gallup poll (and this is in line with what other polls have found), the number one way citizens interact with government is through the internet. That would be a good place to start.

One day, this will sink in. One day, some one or some group at a high enough level in government to make it happen is going to say, “OK – we get it, we care, and we’re going to do something about it.”

Please, oh please - do!

Related posts:
It’s Time for a Citizen Services Summit
Reality Bites
News Flash! Government Websites Are Not Newspapers!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Plain Language: the Key to Serving Citizens

I was an English major in college. My mom was an English teacher. All my life, I’ve valued words; and I always have believed that you communicate only when you choose the right words and put them in the right order. So from the day I became HUD’s web manager, my number one personal goal was to improve the way government talks to citizens. Make it easy. Make it conversational. Make it useful. Use the words citizens use.

When I met Annetta Cheek, from the Center for Plain Language, I found a soul mate and a cause that I could really get behind. Plain language – using words your audience understands – seems like such an obvious objective for government. If we don’t communicate effectively, we don’t serve effectively. And yet, we just don’t invest the time and energy to write plainly, especially on our websites.

In a recent survey sponsored by the General Services Administration (GSA), respondents were asked to choose 3 things that we could do to improve government websites. Number one answer (chosen by 62%)? Write in plain language.

Thursday, November 12, is World Usability Day. “Usability” is a simple concept: make things easy to use. And this year, “plain language” is the focus of World Usability Day. GSA is coordinating some wonderful FREE opportunities to learn more about usability and plain language. Take advantage of them!

Tomorrow - on World Usability Day - stop, take a look at your website, pick a page, and re-write it in plain language. Don’t think about it – do it. Challenge the other web managers and web contributors in your organization to do the same thing. At the end of the day, post those pages. And next week, pick a day and do it again. Make a commitment to rewriting at least the top pages and most-used pages of your website within the next 6 months. It’s the very best thing you can do for your audience. It’s the key to serving citizens.

Related Links
Plain Language Is a Win-Win-Win

Friday, November 06, 2009

It’s Time for a Citizen Services Summit

Last week, I published my assessment of what’s happened in the past year to implement the Federal Web Manager Council’s White Paper: Putting Citizens First – Transforming Online Government. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what could kick-start real progress in implementing the vision of this paper…and a broader government-wide commitment to Citizen Services. So here it is: I think it’s time to have a Citizen Services Summit. Bring together the best and brightest to tackle these challenges and get things moving.


Pull together a few (no more than 50) top citizen services managers, advocates, and experts from within and outside of government for a one-day summit. Use the White Paper as the starting point – no point reinventing the wheel. And since data shows that citizens are accessing the government via the internet more than any other way, it makes sense to start by looking at services that are (or should be) delivered online. But pay special attention to that Recommendation 12 that calls for making sure citizens get the same answer no matter how they interact with government.

Rather than a gab-fest about what could be, make this a product-driven day, resulting in a plan – with specific follow-up actions. Keep the focus on improving citizen services, and discuss technology only within that construct. Hire a professional facilitator – one who can keep the group on course, with no personal agenda.

Who Should Be There?

Well, of course, representatives of the Federal Web Managers Council and some of the folks at GSA who are responsible for government-wide Citizen Services (Martha Dorris, Teresa Nasif, Bev Godwin, etc.). Representatives from OMB who deal with accountability and productivity. Representatives from the White House communications team (especially the New Media group). Representatives of the government Public Affairs Officers. Vivek Kundra and/or representatives of the CIO Council. People inside government who can make the outcomes happen.

And just as many people from outside government…because they can bring a fresh perspective and additional knowledge to the table. People like Gerry McGovern (international expert on web customer service), one or more established usability/user-centered design experts (Jakob Nielson, Jared Spool, Kath Straub, or others), web communication experts (like Ginny Reddish and Annetta Cheek, from the plain language movement), someone from Pew’s Internet and American Life project, someone from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and key government advocates who are willing to get involved in action (like Craig Newmark). Make it a politically balanced group by including people like David Almacy, former Bush White House internet director. Maybe include some think tank folks who are studying how government serves citizens through the internet. Maybe a representative or two from other nations (like the UK or Canada) who are making real strides in improving citizen services online.

What Would They Do?

Start by looking at the evidence – what do we know about what citizens want from their government, online? Examine usability data and customer satisfaction data and other evidence. Then look at the current status – what’s working and what isn’t? But don’t spend too much time on this – it’s not rocket science. We don’t need more debate – we need action. Give participants some (or all) of this background before the summit and tell them it’s “homework.” Use the in-person time to craft strategy and plans.

Establish some ground rules, like “check political agendas and sales pitches at the door” and “data and evidence about what citizens want and need will trump what we THINK they want or need” and “great service is job one – period.”

Go through the White Paper, identifying exactly what needs to happen to implement each recommendation (e.g., issue a memo or train staff) and, as important, who needs to act to make it happen. If you hit a contentious issue, table it for the time being; and come back to it later. Make this a positive, results-oriented, collegial gathering.

At the end of the day, recap the actions planned, make sure everyone knows what he/she has agreed to do to help, and put the plan in writing. Share it widely and publicly. Track completion.

How Do We Set This In Motion?

I’m thinking GSA, with its government-wide “citizen services” mission, is the logical organizer/convener. The Web Managers Council has to be involved in all aspects, from identifying invitees to developing the background data and information to articulating the status and barriers to implementation of the White Paper. Web Managers have a huge amount of knowledge to share. Advocates outside government can help by endorsing the idea in blogs and Tweets and talking to their friends inside government, to encourage action. And raising their hands to join in.

The White Paper laid out a vision that we all should support – a vision that requires a real cross-government (and, in some cases, maybe beyond government) commitment to working together to fix problems, break down barriers, and do what needs to be done to make U.S. government websites the most citizen-friendly service outlets in the world.

Let’s not just talk about it – let’s do it!