Monday, April 04, 2011

If Your Portal Doesn’t Add Value, We’ll Use Google

I remember when I first heard the term, “portal.” The concept of a home page that would aggregate links to content from other sites around themes made so much sense to me. Indeed, it was a huge step in the right direction – more than 10 years ago.

Today – many years later – customers’ expectations are so much higher. And search engines are so much better. So if your portal doesn’t enhance our experience (make it faster, better), we’ll skip the intermediary. We’ll just use Google.

The other day, I visited a state government portal. Like most web customers, I’m in a hurry. I want to complete my task as fast as I can. So I land on the portal site – gee, it’s great! I figure out how to navigate, find the content I want…super easy! But then – what’s this? I’m linked to a site that looks completely different. In a pop-up window – which I hate. This site is a mess.  Can’t find what I want. Grrr. That state portal set me up for disappointment. Bad portal! Bad state government! I should have used Google.

I started looking around at other government portals. Lots of examples. Go to Nicely designed portal site. I see the top tasks on the front page. Navigation on the left where I expect it to be. Yes – the governor’s photo is there, but it’s on the top right…it isn’t the first thing my eye sees. So I choose “Education,” and I go to a second level page that follows that same clean navigation. Yay! But – ut oh – when I choose “Department of Education,” I go to a different design. More complex. Harder to find what I want. Not sure I want to be here. And the only way to get back to the main Iowa page is through the “back” click (there’s no “home” button to get me back to the portal). Wait – it won’t even let me do that. I’m in one of those truly exasperating sites that won’t let me back out of it! Oh boy… now, I’m really a frustrated customer.

I love Who wouldn’t feel at home with those four big ol’ customer-focused choices: Do, Discover, Connect, Ask?  But I go down a click or two and end up on an entirely different looking site with that ominous “welcome to our website” greeting (whenever I see “welcome,” I pretty much know the rest of the site is going to be sub-par). I’m so disappointed. Why, beautiful Why did you let me down?

Don't get me wrong.  I think a front door to a state or city or federal government is a good idea. But you’ve got to add value to the customer’s experience. You've got to make it easy to complete our top tasks, especially when those tasks cross agencies or departments.  You’ve got to show us where to start and what to do next and pick out the best choices among all the choices.  You’ve got to give us something Google can’t.

So...two suggestions.

First, establish a common design with common navigation (so we learn it once and use it throughout all parts of the site) and – pay attention here – common publication standards, across all the subordinate sites. I’m talking about portals for units of government here: city, state, federal. Your customers think of you as a single entity. All of your components work under the same umbrella. You can do this.

You can let each agency run its site – but within a common design and common plain writing rules so it all works the same customer-friendly way. Then, if task-completion crosses entities, the customer never needs to know it.  If you need to accommodate a unique mission or audience for one agency or department, you can still use common elements (header, general layout) and publication standards. I know it’s hard. But lots of cities and states and even large federal agencies have done it. Look at EPA.

Second - do the work. If you’ve got multiple sources on the same topic, take your customers to the ones that can help them complete their top tasks best. Analyze. Test. Make some judgment calls. Don’t list every single resource available – Google can do that. Choose the best. Yes, you might hurt some officials’ or web managers’ feelings. On the other hand, you might force them to step up and improve their content. The goal here is to help your customers.

Portals need to offer customers something they can’t get from search engines. They need to make the customer’s experience easier. If you don’t add value, then we might as well (and will) use Google.

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Susan Parker said...

This is a great post, I plan to share it -- you're preaching to the choir here. Please check out Mass.Gov; it's a work in progress, but I think we're one of the only states (the only state?) that is providing a top-level portal organized around users and tasks AND consolidated multi-agency "subsites" around broad themes themes, using a consistent look, feel and navigation. Sure, there are still plenty of different-looking state sites we link off to, but within the Exec. Branch we've got about 80% penetration in terms of use of our templates. It's a constant struggle to convince agencies that being unique and special and different isn't all it is cracked up to be. Other agencies are on board, we just haven't gotten to them yet.

Sungjun Park said...

I did not know how good the Mass.Gov was until I visited Iowa and Texas state website...

Thank you for giving me a chance to think outside the box.


Sungjun Park said...

I did not know how good Mass.Gov was until I visited Iowa and Texas state website....

Thank you for giving me a chance to think outside the box.


Pam said...

I was totally shocked at this post - shocked because I had thought state portals would have made much more headway in the 3.5 years I have been away from working on Mass.Gov, the Massachusetts portal. Well before I left, when Massachusetts was well on its way to developing a portal with a consistent look and feel, and organizing content and tasks based upon what the customer wants, and not government bureaucracy, it seemed like many states were doing the same thing. Massachusetts has done a tremendous job - it's not perfect - but it has integrated a substantial amount of content using one design. There are still agencies who feel they need to be unique - your post reiterates what Mass.Gov has been saying for years. I'm surprised other states have not kept up with Massachusetts.

Pam said...

I am shocked to read your post - because it leads me to believe that things have not changed much in the 3.5 years I have been away from working on Mass.Gov, the Massachusetts portal. I have not been keeping up to date on what states have been doing, with the exception of Mass. Prior to my leaving, Massachusetts was well on its way to developing its portal, designed with a consistent look and feel and organized based on the customer need, not bureaucracy. It seemed like many, many states were doing similar things, but based on Candi's experience, that's not the case. Mass.Gov has continued to integrate massive amounts of content and tasks from many, many agencies, creating a great customer experience - if the content you need has been integrated. Unfortunately, there are still agencies who feel that they are unique, and haven't yet integrated. But, Mass.Gov continues to make progress integrating content within the portal providing a consistent user experience. It's a shame other states have not done the same.