Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Government Websites Yak, Yak, Yak

I just finished judging the web entries for the 2011 Clearmark Plain Language Awards.  Much better entries this year. Some real models for government agencies to use as they implement the Plain Writing Act.

One of the benefits of the Clearmark Awards - in addition to the chance for some great recognition - is that every applicant gets critical feedback from the judges. My fellow judges and I spent a lot of time on those score sheets, pointing out both what works well and what needs to be improved. You know the one comment I made on almost every single entry? TOO MANY WORDS!

Yak, yak, yak. Government agencies just don’t seem to know when to stop, when it comes to websites. One of the most common problems is writing a website like you’re writing a print publication. Don’t do that, darn it. After all this time, you know better. Another common problem is redundancy. Say it once – we’ll get it. Use formatting tricks to help your readers. You write paragraphs when a simple bulleted list would make scanning and absorbing so much easier.

Web readers are impatient. They come to your website to do something – to complete a task. They might be using a cell phone to complete that task. They don’t want to wade around in the yakety yak muck to find what they want. They want to find it, use it, and move on with their busy lives, as fast as possible.

So let me give you an example (sorry to pick on you, Education…I could have found an example on just about any government website). Take a look at this paragraph on the Federal Student Aid website:

"We can help make your education affordable! The Department's Federal student aid programs are the largest source of student aid in America. If you're interested in financial aid for college or a career school, you've come to the right place. These programs provide more than $150 billion a year in grants, loans, and work-study assistance. Read on to find out more and to find out how to apply for this aid."

Yak, yak, yak. Your readers don’t care that you are the largest source of aid. They just want the money. So get to it – tell them what you’ve got and how they can get it.

"We provide more than $150 billion each year in grants, loans, and work-study programs. Find out how to apply."

Here are the facts (right from our friends at the Plain Language Action and Information Network):
  • 79% of web readers scan – they don’t read every word
  • Web readers only read about 18% of what's on a page
  • As the number of words on a page goes up, the percentage read goes down
  • On average, web readers only read the first two words on each line
  • Web readers can decide in as little as 5 seconds whether your site is useful to them
If you want satisfied customers – web readers – you’ve got to make it easy for them. You’ve got to figure out what they want/need to complete the task and then challenge yourself to convey it in as little space as possible. Limit the number of words. Use words your readers will look for and understand quickly. Use formatting (sometimes even graphics) to help convey meaning.

The Clearmark Award winners will be announced at the Center for Plain Language banquet on April 28. Go meet the winners in person, if you can; and hear how they made their websites “plain.” If you can’t go, check back on the Center for Plain Language website to see the winning entries. Then print out the Plain Language Guidelines on Plainlanguage.gov and go to work on your website.

I can’t say this enough. This is the most important thing you can do to improve your website. Fix the writing! Do your customers a huge favor. Cut out that yak, yak, yak.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Customer Service Strategies Start With the Customers

OK – you’re back from the Government Web and New Media Conference, and you’re sky high thinking about mobile apps and Facebook pages and “Meetups.” Gotta have all those channels.  But where to start?

That’s easy. Start with your customers.  What do they want and need?  How do they want to get it?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I'm a broken record.  But this works, folks. 
  1. Begin with top tasks.  Go back to those very few services (transactions or information) that lots of your customers want, need, and use most. We’re talking 3-5 (no more).
  2. Assess what you’ve got. What content do you already have for each of those tasks – on your website(s), in your social media efforts, among your mobile apps, in your call centers and print publications?  Take inventory.
  3. Assess your customers. Are customers able to complete their top tasks quickly and easily? Look at each of your delivery channels.  What's working?  What's not? If you don’t know, do usability testing.  If customers aren’t using one of your channels, why not? Would another channel or additional channels help customers complete these tasks better/faster? 
  4. Fix what you’ve got.  If your content is bad, you don't want to give your customers more ways to get to it.  So fix the content before you add channels.  And don’t tell me you don’t have anything to fix because content is never perfect (and I've seen a lot of your sites!). Do a plain language review. Go to plainlanguage.gov, print out those checklists, and go after your content.  Edit, edit, edit. Better yet, rewrite completely.  Keep in mind that you want to create content once and use it – maybe in a boiled down version – on all your channels.  See if you can cut steps, simplify, make it easier for customers to use your top services.  Do more usability testing - and I mean test it on all channels.
  5. Now, open up new channels (if your customers need them). Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you only put top tasks on your new mobile site, that's a great start.  Get that right and then move on.  Keep testing and improving. 
Give your customers what they want, when they want it, in ways that make sense to them.  Start your strategy with your customers.

PS - If you didn’t make it to last week’s conference, do yourself a favor - take some time to watch the videos and review the presentations. Read Dave McClure’s overview on transforming the customer experience first. Spot on.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Three Conversations I’d Have at the Government Web and New Media Conference

This week – March 17-18 – is the annual Government Web and New Media Conference in Washington DC. This conference, which is sponsored by the Federal Web Managers Council and the General Services Administration, is THE event for web communicators at all levels of government. In addition to having great “how-to” sessions, you’ll hear inspirational speakers, form your own un-conference seminars, and – best of all – network with your colleagues. It’s an opportunity to restore your passion and energy for serving the public through the internet. And it’s a great chance to have some thought-provoking conversations.

If I were going to be there, here are three conversations I’d like to have with my colleagues.
  1. How can we use what we’re learning here to provide better customer service across government?  So many terrific sessions on the schedule…innovation, new media, challenges, plain language, and more. GSA will share all the wonderful support and tools they have to offer the government web communications community to help you make your customers’ experience better. But what will you do with all that good stuff? How will you – the people who are on the line for great customer service – bundle the ideas and new skills you gain into action? What are you willing to do – on your own or as a group – to improve the way government serves its customers?
  2. What’s next? Where are we going as a community? Where’s our niche in government? Do we want to stay what we are – a grassroots collective that’s been pretty successful by building critical mass and adopting common best practices? Or do we want/need to be something more formal to accomplish what we want to do? Do we need a Chief Web Officer at OMB? Would that help us or hurt us? What role do we need GSA to play to help us move forward? Is the Federal Web Managers Council an adequate governance group or do we need something else? What are the pros and cons? How can we cause the changes we want?
  3. How can we expand the knowledge in our community?  When you leave this conference, I guarantee you’ll be flying high. So many new ideas…things you want to try…new strategies…new skills. So how can you take that energy and knowledge back and share with others who work on your agency’s website? How can you get them excited? I’m not just talking about your web team members. I’m also talking about all those people – probably hundreds of them – who contribute content to your website and social media efforts regularly. How do you pass along the training and synergy of this conference? How do you bring others into the community?
This conference is the place for some great “big think.” Brainstorm, try out new ideas, and test your “out there” concepts. I wish I could be there to start conversations…light some fires, spark some spirited discussion. Since I can’t go, maybe you’ll have them for me.  Have fun!

PS – If you can’t attend the conference in person, follow it on Twitter #govwebcon.

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Sunday, March 06, 2011

Set Your Compass on “Service”

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating.

Many years ago, my good friend Phyllis Preston (currently at the Federal Aviation Administration) introduced me to her father, Ed Preston. I knew Ed had worked for the federal government for many years; so as I shook his hand, I asked, “Ed…where did you work?” He replied, “I served at the IRS.” Did you catch that? He used the word, “served.” Not “worked.” Ed served.

Honestly, I had to catch my breath. It was one of those life-altering moments when things just snap into place, and your vision becomes clear. An epiphany. That one word – served – defined Ed Preston…what he did and how he did it. It said, “I chose a proud profession – public service.” It said, “service is a mindset, as well as a mission.” It said, “I never forget who I am and why I’m here.” Ed Preston set his compass on service, and throughout his long and honorable career – at IRS, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House – he stayed the course.

I wanted to be just like him. I want all public servants to be just like him.

One of the hardest parts of being a government web manager – heck, being a government employee – is remembering why you’re draining the swamp, when you’re up to your neck in alligators. Too much to do. Too many demands. Not enough time or resources. New ideas. New technologies. New administrations. Changing priorities. Pretty soon, you find yourself so caught up in what you’re doing, you forget why you’re doing it.

So here’s my message - what I learned from Ed Preston. Set your compass on “service,” and use it every single day - not just in what you do, but how you think and how you act. When you find yourself lost in the swamp of “to do” lists, stop and consider why you’re doing it. When you go to the annual Government Web and New Media Conference on March 17-18 (follow on Twitter - #govwebcon) and get all excited about those great “how-to’s” on plain language, social media, searches, and usability, step back and make sure you know “what-for.” And next time someone asks you what you do for a living, I hope you’ll say – because it’s true - “I serve.”

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