Friday, March 19, 2010

Past Is Prologue – Learn From Web History

Shakespeare had it right. What came before has a bearing on what comes next. That holds true with the web, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about web history lately. You see, I’m a little nostalgic this month. HUD’s website just turned 15; and as head nurturer for its first 10 years, I’ve been looking back, marveling at how far we’ve come…thinking about what we learned along the way…and wondering how our past will shape the future. So if you’ll bear with me (I know this is long and self-indulgent), I’ll share a little of HUD’s web history. Maybe you’ll recognize some of the lessons we learned.

Here is’s baby picture. Actually, I wasn’t the birth mother. HUD’s technology office (no CIO yet) put this site together and posted it in March 1995. Primitive – yes. But hey, we were on the web!

I took over as HUD’s “webmaster” (we changed to “Web Manager” a couple of years later, a title coined by a Harvard “web manager”) in April 1995. It was just me and a team of 3 tech contractors, plus the IT contract manager. One of those contractors was Sam Gallagher, and I hired him a couple of years later (eventually, he got my job!).

In the interest of space, I’m going to use links to the rest of these examples. But gosh, I hope you look at them. It’s part of the fun!

HUD home page version 4

A year - and two interim versions (lesson: the public hates it when you make big changes too often) later - we debuted our first award-winner. Yeah – I know. It looks pretty hokey now. But at the time, the praise was resounding. We were going for a warmer, friendlier face of government. We changed our website name to “Homes and Communities” to show this site was about what citizens want/need - not about HUD (little known fact – that title came from an idea that Henry Cisneros and Andrew Cuomo had floated to change HUD’s name). And we added a section called, “You, the Citizen,” to help people figure out what they could do on our website. Even then – with relatively few pages – citizens needed help knowing where to start.

Yippee! - we started earning some “awards” (in those days, it was a pretty big deal to get USA Today’s or Yahoo’s “Site of the Week”). The real benefit of awards? HUD managers wanted a piece of that action, and I got more cooperation. But most important, citizens liked what we were doing. They loved this new, friendlier government. They liked that we were using words they could understand and organizing content in ways that made sense to them. How do I know? In those days, I handled all the email that came in through the site. Thousands of emails. One of the best ways to listen to your audience.

Mistakes. That cool little ticker tape right below the graphic started eating memory on people’s computers, making them slower and slower. Lessons: just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. And being “cool” is never a good reason to do something on a government website. Learn a little, do a little, learn a little, do a little…

HUD home page version 6

In 1998, new HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo was installing a fresh look for HUD; and our website followed suit. We went lean, clean, and contemporary. I loved the look. Unfortunately, it was our least successful design. We went too lean and clean. People had to drill down too many levels to get what they wanted. Lesson: masthead navigation doesn’t work well - people assume it’s advertising and ignore it. When we moved those nav links down into the topics list…zoom! Page views shot way up. Learn a little, do a little.

HUD home page version 8

In November 1999, we launched another design…still clean, but not quite so lean. People reacted well to the white space. But we made one big mistake. See that center box: “Community News?” Most people come to HUD’s site to find out how to buy a home, how to buy a HUD home, or how to get low-rent housing. But we decided - being smarter (?) than our audience - that they should know all the good things happening in their communities as a result of HUD programs. So we smacked them in the face with that big box. Did they read it? Nope. They complained about it (why do you try to divert our attention from what we came to do? It’s annoying). Oh, some practitioners and advocates read it. But we didn’t achieve our aim. Problem was that we couldn’t make it go away. The Public Affairs folks liked it. Eventually, that box started featuring more about HUD than about communities. Audience wants don’t always win out. Just a reality. Learn a little, do a little.

HUD home page version 9

My final major redesign as HUD’s web manager went live on Inauguration Day, 2001. I guessed correctly that a new Secretary would want a new look on his administration’s website (I got a call from his top aide the next week, thanking me). So we rolled out “Big Red.” Our aims this time were to cut layers and improve our wording of topics and links. We did many, many focus groups, looking at those elements. We also circled back to that 1996 “You, the Citizen” idea by introducing “At Your Service.” We did something right because our email dropped dramatically – people were finding what they wanted.

In 2002, we added “state pages” to HUD’s site. Our “local HUD office” sites were good, but the content was inconsistent. We listened to our audience who repeatedly told us, “yes, we want to learn how to buy a home…but what we really want is to learn to buy a home in Texas.” Or New York. Or wherever they lived or wanted to live. So, with our 10 new regional HUD web managers, we created a page of state, county, and city resources for each state. We were careful not to duplicate what was already on the “national” site, but to supplement it. And we made sure that every state had the same information – because every citizen deserved to be treated equally. Those pages went up in September 2002; and from their very first month, they were among the top 2 or 3 sections on the website. Bullseye! Learn a little, do a little…

I retired, and life went on. Last year, the current version of HUD’s website went up. I like the contemporary look. The “I want to” section gets citizens to the things they really come to the website for…buy a home, find rental help…in the spirit of “You, the Citizen” and “At Your Service.” Don’t like the big scrolling “hero” box at the top (but you know that if you’ve read my previous blogs about that design device). But the beat goes on…learn a little, do a little…

History is important. It helps you avoid potholes you’ve hit before. It helps you shape your strategy for the future. Have you documented the history of your website? Do you remember why you (or your predecessors) made those choices and changes? Does your agency know? Do your colleagues know (so they can learn from your hits and misses)? Does the public know (let the sunshine in!)? Past is prologue. Learn from web history.

Related Link
HUD’s Web History

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been waiting for this blog for awhile. Thanks,