Saturday, April 24, 2010

To Citizens, You Are the World

I always get a little nostalgic this time of the year. You see, this coming week, government web communicators (web managers and new media directors) across the country will gather in Washington DC for the annual 2 days of networking, listening to government leaders and web luminaries, and discussing exciting new ventures and directions, courtesy of Web Manager University (GSA) and the Federal Web Managers Council. I used to be among you, and I miss you guys. But that’s not my message here.

My message is this: you folks – you government web communicators – rock! And I hope that - just for a few minutes, while you’re gathered together- you’ll celebrate yourselves and each other and just how much you’ve done to improve the way government serves its customers. To the world you might be one person, but to citizens, you are the world.

Fifteen years ago, government agencies were just putting up their first primitive websites. Now, look what you’ve done. You’ve created vast resources that citizens can use, day and night, 7 days a week - from their homes, their offices, their cell phones – to help their families and themselves, to solve their problems, and to achieve their objectives. You’ve put government services online that citizens never even knew existed, and you’re constantly working to make them easier to find and use. You’ve turned complicated government-ese into information and directions that citizens can understand. You’ve brought government to the people, and now you’re even helping people become part of their government. You’ve put citizens first.

You’ve done all this in spite of a huge workload, ever-increasing (and often competing) demands, insufficient resources, and – sometimes – lack of top level support. You’ve fought to make your agencies deal with citizens from their point of view because you know your audience. You’ve found ways to work together, within your agencies and across agencies, to consolidate content and eliminate duplication and connect the dots, so citizens don’t have to struggle to figure out their often overwhelming government. You understand the importance of great customer service, and you knock yourselves out to deliver. Do you have more to do? Absolutely. But, oh my – look how far you’ve come. You’ve opened a whole new world of government services to citizens.

So as your former colleague, I say, “Bravo! Congratulations! Proceed until apprehended!” If you are attending the Government Web and New Media Conference this week, look around at these amazing, hard-working people and recognize their tremendous contributions and commitment to public service. Celebrate all you’ve achieved, individually and together. If you can’t go to the conference…heck, pat yourself on the back. And follow the proceedings on Twitter (follow @WebManagerU and #govwebcon ).

But more important…as one of the citizens who count on you to open government services to us, I say sincerely, “Thank you so very much, government web communicators.” To us, you are the world.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Keep It Plain!

With the announcement of the Clearmark Plain Language Awards on April 29, this is a good time to trot out some tips on writing “plain” for your web audience.

I don’t care how good your website design is, if the writing is poor – if you don’t communicate with your target audience – your website fails. The most important thing you can do for your agency and your audience is spend time editing, re-writing, and testing your content with your target audience. A lot of time. Regularly.

Think what you’re trying to achieve. You want readers to understand what they read the first time through. And you want them to be able to act – correctly - on what you’ve told them.

So here are 3 practices that will help you succeed.

1.  Keep it simple. “Plain language” is just that – plain. Not fancy. Use simple words that everyone in your audience understands. That just seems so obvious to me, but it’s amazing how many times I read government websites that fail. You guys and your darned jargon.

Here’s one that always drove us crazy at HUD: “assisted housing.” What the heck does that mean? Is that another term for “assisted living?” Is that a place where someone will take care of me? When we tested it with our audience, they told us “rental help” made more sense to them. Now how hard was that?

Am I telling you to “dumb it down?” No, I’m telling you to communicate. Do you honestly think your readers run to a dictionary when they hit a word they don’t understand? No. They skip it and hope they’ll figure out what you’re trying to say or they give up and stop reading. So use simple words. Do the work. Figure out how to say it in words your audience understands.

2.  Write conversationally. Use first- and second-person pronouns: “I,” “we,” “us,” “our,” “you.” It drives me crazy when I read on an agency’s website, “the department of xyz announces…” Excuse me. Why are you talking in third person, as if I don’t exist? Talk to ME!

I’m reminded of that Seinfeld episode when the character “Jimmy” talked in third person. “Jimmy’s legs hurt. Jimmy can’t go with you today.” Poor Elaine held an entire conversation with Jimmy, thinking he was talking about another guy in the gym.

Communicating is personal. It’s between you and the reader. So when you write, think about that person who is reading it. Have a conversation – write like you’d talk. You’ll have more success getting your message across.

3.  Eliminate unnecessary words. With all due respect to my mom, who taught high school English for 35 years, here’s the truth: you don’t need to write in complete sentences to communicate a complete thought. As Ginny Redish puts it, “Let go of the words.”

Don’t include words like “that.” We know that we will

Don’t state the obvious: This website is aboutWelcome. On this page you’ll find…

Every word adds to reading time and delays action. People want to act. They want to get the answer and go do it. Make every single word count. If you don’t need it to communicate the message, get rid of it. Edit, edit, edit!

Both and the Center for Plain Language have more tips, examples, and resources. Use them. The Center for Plain Language keeps a list of people who can help you. Ask them. Offer a plain language training session at your agency. Invite everyone who writes or edits your web content routinely.

If we don’t communicate effectively, we don’t serve effectively. Keep it plain!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

How Does Your Website Stack Up?

Last week, a county government communications director in Oregon asked me to help her put together a session for their annual state meeting. We agreed that a “show and tell” hour, where attendees volunteer to show their county’s website and let their colleagues tell them what they think, could work well. I offered to do a short checklist to guide the discussion…and maybe to remind – even enlighten – the participants about what’s important on a government website.

So here is my 10-point checklist – the 10 best practices that I look for when I review a government website. How does your government website stack up?

10 Best Practices for Government Websites

See if you can answer “yes” to each of these.
  1. Audience immediately can identify what the site is about, who it’s for, what they need to do to complete their tasks. Most-used tasks are featured prominently in the intitial screen so the audience can find them in the first 7 seconds. Note: If you have them buried in a large, rotating “feature” box that takes 30 seconds to cycle through, answer “no.”
  2. Content is organized in topics the audience understands. No unnecessary topics.
  3. Navigation is easy to find, easy to understand, and easy to use. Navigation is consistent from page to page.
  4. Content is formatted for the web reader. Uses headers and sub-headers, bullets, and lists to make it easy to scan and find what you want. Font colors are dark against a light background. Uses a sans serif font to make it easy to read on the screen.
  5. Content is organized to make it easy for the audience to complete tasks. Most important information is at the top. Steps are clear. Content is short, to the point, and anticipates questions.
  6. Content is written in plain language. Uses words the audience understands and searches for. Content for the general public is written at an elementary reading level. Content is conversational...written in first (“I,” “we,” “us”) and second (“you”) person. Uses active verbs (“start here,” “read this”). Omits unnecessary words (e.g. “welcome,” “our mission is…,” “this website will…”).
  7. Links are clear and useful. Link text tells readers what they’ll find (no “click here” or “more”). Content is layered appropriately (not too deep). No broken links.
  8. Every graphic is essential to communicate critical information. No gratuitous graphics. No graphics just because they’re “cute” or “cool.” No photos of agency executives on the home page (put them on the “about us” page). Graphics aid skimming – no “eye-stoppers.” (Tip: check download time on a cell phone!)
  9. Contact information - mailing address, phone number(s), and email address(es) - is in plain sight. May be linked from “contact us.”
  10. Content is clearly current. Date of last review or update or “content current as of…” is in plain sight.
Related Posts
Customer Service Standards Worth Living Up To
Plain Language - the Key to Serving Citizens

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Take Time to Nurture Your Web Team

At the end of my last course, I asked everyone what one thing they were going to do when they got back to their agencies. One participant surprised me by saying he was going to organize a meeting of all the web managers and major web contributors in the agency and share what he’d learned - something they’d never done before. Wow – really? You’ve never done that? So I asked his classmates if their agencies held regular agency-wide meetings and/or training sessions for the extended web “team.” Most said, “no.”

Gosh folks, this is a must-do! Part of your job as a web manager is to build a strong agency-wide team – a network across organizations that helps you move in the same direction…a group that works together, helps each other, and helps you.

Your “team” isn’t just those people who sit in the agency web manager’s office with you. It’s that broad cadre of people throughout the agency - in Washington DC and across the country - who work on the website routinely…full-time or part-time. It’s the people who compile and write and edit and post and maintain content. They probably don’t report to you in any formal way, but you can’t succeed if they aren’t working with you.

Nurture that team. Get them together – help them get to know one another…help them get to know you.

How? Here are 10 activities that have worked for me:
  1. Do some training. Maybe you have a new technology to show. Maybe you have new social media policies to share. Or maybe you just want to go over the procedures for maintaining content. Get creative with your training. Do it yourself, or have one of the team members do it. Or maybe bring in outside talent. At HUD, we hired Gerry McGovern to do a one-day workshop on writing great web content - our web team loved it. But you don’t have to look outside government. Use your peers in other agencies. Nicole Burton at GSA is terrific at teaching usability principles. The folks who manage often are available to do training. And the social media sub-council of the Federal Web Managers Council has a number of speakers who can talk about social media best practices. Use them.
  2. Solve problems together. Lay out some of the issues you’re facing and break into work groups to come up with solutions. Involve them in implementation.
  3. Identify new directions. Break into brainstorming groups and come up with ideas for new or improved ways to serve customers through your website(s).
  4. Take a field trip. We started taking the HUD web managers on field trips whenever we got them together. We always met in one of HUD’s field offices (it’s really good to get the web team away from Washington DC), and we’d use part of one day to visit some of the projects HUD funds in that city. There’s nothing like actually being in public housing and talking with residents and managers to see the agency’s work from the eyes of the customers.
  5. Do content reviews. Have everyone come with one or two pages that are giving them trouble. Go over your writing standards (if you don’t have any, here’s an example from HUD). Then pick 4-5 of the problem pages, have everyone rate them individually, and then put them in groups of three and have them come up with a joint review, including suggestions for improvement. Whenever we did this as a group, we always saw lightbulbs go on. And we always improved the pages we reviewed.
  6. Do show and tell. Pick some of your star performers and let them show and tell about a page or something they’ve done to improve web communications. Always encourage your team to share best practices.
  7. Do a focus group. Ask some of your colleagues to invite family or friends (people who don’t really know your business) to come in for an informal focus group. You don’t have to hire someone to facilitate – just do it yourself. Pick a few pages of your website (or social media sites) and ask for feedback. Keep it easy and relaxed. After your guests leave, discuss what you saw and heard; and create a “to do” list.
  8. Do usability testing. There is absolutely nothing more instructive than watching people try to complete tasks on your website. This can be a terrific thing to do in your web team meetings. Again, ask colleagues to invite family or friends to volunteer for some informal usability testing. 3-4 should do it. Have them come at intervals of 30 minutes or so because you’ll test them individually. Come up with two or three scenarios typical of the kinds of things citizens might do on your website (at HUD we used things like: pretend you want to buy a home but you don’t have money for a downpayment. See if there are programs that could help you). Then ask them to sit down at a computer and complete the task, while team members watch. I guarantee you – you’ll learn something from it. has lots more tips on doing scenario tests.
  9. Brief them on the goals of the governmentwide web manager community. We serve best when we serve together, and your web team needs to know where the broader web community is headed. Invite a member of the Federal Web Managers Council to speak to your group or have a discussion about the FWMC White Papers. Get them thinking about how they fit into the bigger picture and what they can do to help.
  10. Eat together, play together. There is nothing better for team-building than eating together and playing together. Do brown bag lunches or go to meals together. Set up web trivia contests or do other team games to break the ice. Make sure you stir up the group – don’t let them just sit with people they know. The goal is to build relationships so you strengthen the network.
We did routine “team” meetings at HUD for years, bringing together web managers and coordinators from across the country. EPA also gathers its “team” routinely – and very successfully. The point is: do it!

Face time builds trust among team members. Conference calls and wikis are great; but every now and then, get your folks together, in the same room. Provide some structure, and give them time to get to know one another – forge personal relationships. People leave these meetings feeling they’re part of something important. They get out of their silos and see customer service from a broader perspective.

Take time to nurture your web team. The benefits are huge.