Friday, June 29, 2012

Get Out Your Pitchforks and Clean Up That Content

The recently-released federal Digital Government Strategy lays out many promising initiatives that will, no doubt, improve the technology and infrastructure behind online services and, thus, enhance customer experience.  Many talented people worked hard to develop this Strategy, and they will continue to work hard on its implementation.  But we still don’t have a clear plan for cleaning up the mess that is the existing content of government websites…those pages and pages of words, many that are outdated, redundant, poorly written (and, thus, unusable) or just plain unnecessary.   It’s the haystack customers have to sort through to find what they really want.

It’s time to get out the pitchforks and do the dirty work.  Here’s what I would do. 

1.  Establish archive sites.  Require every agency to establish archives.(agency name).gov as a separate website for obsolete, redundant, and little-used content that is still important for researchers, students, historians, and interested citizens.  You don’t need an archives site for every website – one  (or just a few) for the agency should do the trick.  Examples of content for archives sites are documentation about obsolete programs; speeches, press releases, reports, management plans, testimony, and other materials from past administrations; past budget materials; and other content required by the National Archives and Records Administration or agency records policies.  Set up the archives site so that customers can find it from the live site, but its content will not turn up in searches of the live site (and confuse customers).  Brand every page on the archives site so customers know this content is no longer maintained and is available only for reference purposes.  Use as a prototype.

2.  Review statistics.  Require every agency to review the statistics for every page on every one of their websites, for the past 6 months.  Create 3 lists:
  • List 1:  Pages that are viewed an average of 100 times or more every month
  • List 2:  Pages that are viewed an average of 11-99 times every month
  • List 3:  Pages that have been viewed an average of 10 times or less, every month
If you don’t have a statistics package that gives you views per page, get one now!

3:  Review content on List 3 (because it should be the easiest).  Task content owners (subject matter experts) to decide and act accordingly:
  • Still needed – work with web managers to update and rewrite to make more usable.  Improve navigation and optimize for searches.
  • Not needed, but still useful as reference or to maintain transparency – move to the archives site.
  • Not needed at all.  Remove it from the server.  Be sure to meet NARA and agency records retention plans. 
4:  Do the same things for List 2.

5:  Improve pages on List 1.  This is your top content – that which your customers want and use most.  Can this content be improved through plain writing, search optimization, or navigation?  If so, do it.
Establish the goal to reduce the amount of content on the active website by half.  Don’t analyze this stuff to death.  If in doubt, move it to archives.  You always can move it back if you made a mistake.  Set deadlines and get it done.  Make it a 6-month project, and declare victory at the end of the year.
I know it’s not fun to clean up our messes.  But those behemoth websites are still there, and millions of customers are still trying to use them every month.  Having all that content wastes time (both yours and your customers') and money.  So if we really care about our customers – if we want to make their experience positive and helpful – we’ve got to get out the pitchforks and clear out some of that hay to make it easy for them to find those great services we offer. 
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Sunday, June 03, 2012

3 Lessons from the Clearmark Plain Language Awards

The 2012 Clearmark Plain Language Awards have been announced.  As a 3-time judge for the government web and media entries, I have to tell you - this is a stellar group.  The quality of entries in this awards program has improved by leaps and bounds, over the past 3 years.  The winners give government agencies some wonderful models for plain writing.

As I judged this year’s entries, I noted three important lessons:
1.       Calling something an “e-newsletter” does not mean you can ignore the rules for plain writing.  Some agencies are publishing “e-newsletters” as summaries of current issues or news.  They’re typically 1-pagers of 2-3 blurbs.  Remember this:  no matter what you’re publishing on the web, you have to make content scanable and easy for web readers to use.  No “walls of words.”  Use shorter paragraphs than you’d use in print publications.  Use bullets and sub-headers to break content into pieces that the web reader can see and understand quickly.  Strip out unnecessary lead-ins and wordiness.   No matter what you call it, if you publish it on the web, it needs to be easy to scan.
2.       Write and design informational videos as carefully as you would a website.  Video can be a very good way to convey information, but remember that web visitors are impatient.  If you want to get a point across in a video (just like in writing), get rid of anything that isn’t essential to communicating the point.  No need for those intros by agency heads (viewers see them as “commercials”).  Break up long videos into shorter segments if you’re trying to cover several subjects or points.  Give viewers time to absorb one topic at a time.  Edit, edit, edit.  Just like written content, if you use too many words – especially if those words are jargon or unfamiliar to the intended audience – viewers lose interest and leave. 
And one more thing about web videos – make sure you really need them.  Yes, a picture can be worth a thousand words if it shows people how to do something or adds new information.  But posting a video that simply replicates what you’ve already said on the page is not only redundant, it actually can make your audience mad at you for wasting their time. 
Like all web content, test your videos.  Don’t be satisfied if your audience tells you they like your video.  Did they understand it?  Can they use what they got from it?
Which brings me to the most important lesson…
3.       Usability testing matters!  The winning entry in the government web/media category was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Outdoor Air Quality site.  They did so many things right, from words to format.  And they got it right because they did extensive usability testing.  The CDC understands that you must test, rewrite, redesign, and retest continuously, to have a great website (including web video). 
The Clearmark Plain Language Awards showcase the best, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to look through this year’s award winners.  Encourage your agency web writers to look at them, too.  Talk about what makes them good and how you might use those examples to make your own site better.  The real value in these awards is to stimulate others to improve.
Thank you to the Center for Plain Language for presenting the Clearmark Awards.  And congratulations to the winners!  You did a great job.