From Tasks to Topics

Ok so it’s time for another post in my ongoing series (see my last post) on our efforts to revamp the top level of our organization’s website. Today, I’m moving from theory into practice: here’s the steps we are following to wrangle our online tasks into topics. essentially this is how we are going to determine what our landing pages will be.

1. Task identification. We combed through our websites, our org’s service inventory and our Program Activity Architecture to identify tasks that could be accomplished online.

Through hours of slogging, we uncovered over 100 tasks, which we compiled in a big inventory spreadsheet.

This list is likely incomplete, but I’m hopeful that it covers enough breadth to be representative.

We did not prioritize tasks through this process — more on that will come later.

2. User-led categorization. Next, we fed the tasks spreadsheet to our consultants for conducting user research. They recruited and interviewed 13 users based on audience criteria that we already had in hand. In these interviews, our consultants asked participants how they’d group these tasks into categories, and what they’d call the groups they created — in other words, an open card sort.

3. Analysis of the research results. The consultants then analyzed the results of the card sorting interviews and came up with a preliminary list of 25 categories across our main user groups (this was somewhat expected, as we have a wide-ranging mandate). Important point here: since this was an open sort, the names in this list were derived from the words used as category labels from the research participants themselves. This means, they are a key indicator of our clients’ mental models and the language they use when encountering our content. Similar to what Gerry McGovern calls “customer carewords.”

4. Refinement. We felt that 25 different topics was a tad high (e.g. it would form an overly long list if used as a search facet), so we worked with the research data to further refine this list down to 12 categories. We are currently working with our internal stakeholders to validate our work.

5. Tagging. Through the evolution of our topics listing, we’ve been updating our tasks spreadsheet to ensure our topic labels are assigned properly to each task. Aka tagging. Some tasks fall under more than one topic, as they should. For this tagging exercise, we’ve drawn again on the data from the card sorting interviews, but internal stakeholder feedback and editorial judgement both play a role as well.

For now our tagging by topic still lives only on our big tasks spreadsheet, but once we implement in our CMS, we hope to be able to apply in a variety of ways — not only for our landing pages, but also for various forms of search and browse navigation.

But we’re not done yet.

Next steps:

1. Within these categories we need to prioritize the top tasks that will be surfaced on our top level landing pages. We’ll look at web traffic, client surveys, call centre data and internal stakeholder feedback to make that determination.

2. Further user testing is required. We need to plug these topics into the navigation prototypes that we are building and field test them (again with honest to goodness clients from outside the firewall) to see how they function in practice. We fully expect further tweaks.

It’s not a perfect process, but it looks like we’re on our way to a topic-based categorization for our org’s tasks that can be completed online.

We’re hopeful that this means when it comes to actually creating our landing pages, we will be able to present our key tasks in ways that make sense for our clients.

Atomic !Tasks are the atomic level of web content. They are the basic building blocks that make more sophisticated chunks of content (pages, modules, etc) possible.

I mentioned last week that we are re-doing the top level of our website to be more responsive to our users’ needs.

One of the key things we are working on is a series of topic-based landing pages as an aid for our clients in finding and understanding the key tasks that can be accomplished on our site.

But what will be presented on these topic pages? Tasks of course. We’ll be grouping related tasks together, in ways that are are logical to our clients.

So if I were to push my chemistry metaphor further, these topic pages made up of groups of related tasks are like molecules made up of atoms that are bonded together.

Via a combination of tagging and well written copy, not to mention solid design and UX, we hope to be able to build our landing pages — and more — by combining and recombining our tasks in various ways, like a chemist creating different molecules out of their atomic building blocks.

(ok ok so by now I’ve pushed the analogy past its breaking point. Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Next post will move from theory to practice and outline how we are wrangling our tasks into topics.


I have stopped reading regular “social media” experts. What I like about the social CRM crowd is they don’t talk about “how to set up your Facebook” page. Instead they are focused on tying social back to the organization.

via World’s Most Incomplete List of Social CRM Experts | The Funnelholic.


I have been definitely feeling post-social of late (I think it shows as I’m posting less and less about it). I think it might be because I’m reading the wrong stuff. Thinking that the “social CRM” avenue might be my escape hatch.

From a gov/communicator perspective I like the idea of directing social media effort in a customer service direction. Allows for official participation in social channels without all the baggage of dealing with “hot issues.” Better, it’s a way to provide concrete help to the people we serve. I think it has potential to provide a bigger bang for the buck than using social as a channel to do what we’ve always done (e.g. tweeting links to news releases).

I haven’t seen much evidence of the GoC using social media in this vein. Have you?

What’s my basis for content strategy? In other words, what’s the purpose of my web content?

I’m taking a service orientation.

Working in government, my starting point is that people using our web content are doing so because they have specific tasks to complete. They’re not coming to our websites for fun. They’re coming because they need to get something done. This isn’t just an assumption, we’ve seen it in all the research and data we’ve collected.

So I’m taking a page from Gerry McGovern’s work and using top task management as a basis for content strategy: the primary purpose of web content for my org is to assist people in completing the tasks that they come to us for online.

So, how can our content help people with their tasks? Three ways:

  • find the task (marketing or promotional content, landing pages and other forms of nav content)
  • understand the task (explanations, instructions, guides, help)
  • complete the task (forms, workflows, transactions, or contact info for handling the task offline)

Now, I’m part of the team responsible for the what we call the top level of our web content, i.e. the home page and key landing pages at the top of the sitemap. I don’t actually have any control over the places on our site where the tasks themselves are actually situated. Given that, I want our web content to act as a funnel that delivers people efficiently to the tasks they’re there to accomplish. This means that findability first and foremost is my focus.

By findability, I don’t mean SEO. (Well I do, sort of. But that’s fodder for a separate post.) And at this point, I’m not even talking about digital marketing that takes place offsite — in social media or through Adwords or what have you. (We’re just not there yet, we need to fix our core website first.) So I’m really talking about those landing pages I mentioned above. I don’t want them to be a reflection of our org chart or an A-Z list of our program and branch names — that’s too internally focused, unintelligible for our clients from outside the firewall. I want our key landing pages to make sense of the tasks that our clients can undertake on our site, especially the ones that they see as most important. I want these pages to approach our content from the client point of view.

That’s the basis of my content strategy. Pretty simple really.

In my next post, I’ll outline how we’re working to use landing pages to make our primary tasks findable by our clients.

I’m three years behind the times.

In my last post I mentioned my frustration with the (mis)use of the words “content strategy” that I was seeing via what Google alerts was sending me.

Then I read this, from 2008:

To make things more difficult, it seems that for some, “content strategy” is merely the latest in a sad parade of meaningless buzzwords. Particularly among marketers, it’s subject to furious name-dropping. To see what I mean, try my recipe for a dreary evening: set a Google Alert for every mention of “content strategy” and its derivations, read the results, stir well, and set oneself aflame.

The more things change the more they stay the same…

Whenever I need to get up to speed on a new topic, one of the things I do is set up a Google alert. Since content strategy is pretty new to me, I dutifully set up an alert on “content strategy” a few weeks back.

I’m pretty surprised at what the Googlebot has been feeding me. More or less a steady diet of posts on creating new content, whether for feeding the beast that is social media or for improving search engine rankings or for making money in the news/entertainment industries (sometimes all of these at once).

Which has kinda come as a shock.

Having read @halvorson‘s book and also keeping an eye on what @rlovinger, @rsgracey, @kissane and others have to say (via my content strategy twitter list) — I’ve got the sense that content strategy is as much about quality control and managing what’s already posted as it is about creating new stuff.

& Controlling the content spiral speaks to me — I’m a gov webbie after all, and we’ve got pretty serious issues in that area. So what I see as an important piece of any strategy for managing your content is how to handle paring it down.

So why all this blah blah about more more more content?

If your government department or agency is anything like mine it’s a fairly decentralized place. Oh there’s an org chart that’s roughly pyramid shaped, giving the impression that there’s a neat and tidy hierarchy, but in reality, the various teams and units basically do their own thing. People are funny that way.

This makes the ideal of a centralized or stand-alone web unit something that’s really hard to achieve.

Enter the hub and spoke. Jeremiah Owyang writes persuasively of using hub and spoke models to establish organizational discipline for social media, but I would argue that this model can work for managing the traditional website too. All forms of digital in fact – whether mobile, web, data feeds, email, search, social… and whatever is coming down the pipe next.


So what is this hub and spoke? As I see it, the hub is where the digital effort is enabled, while the spokes are the business units that need to accomplish their objectives using digital media.

In the hub sits the underlying functions that allow for efficient and effective digital delivery — where I work this is where overall responsibility for IA/UX, strategy, editorial planning, publishing standards, content governance, measurement and evaluation would be housed, ready to be provided to various business units to draw on. But really, the mix will differ in different organizations.

In turn, the business units which comprise the spokes are the homes for in-depth subject matter expertise and direct responsibility for delivering specific services. Whether its a policy shop that wants to run a consultation, or a program area that’s launching a new round of funding, or any other of a multitude of situations, these teams draw on the hub’s resources to help them succeed online.

This model presupposes a strong hub that can actually bring resources to the table. And also an organizational willingness to act in a coordinated manner. From what I’ve seen this is rarer than you might imagine, often stemming from a lack of appreciation of the strategic value of digital. But hopefully the tide is turning.

Meaningful Brands

Umair Haque on the evolution of branding:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

What’s a meaningful brand? According to @umairh, a meaningful brand signals that a company is at a minimum not actively doing harm, while having a tangible positive impact on people’s outcomes or quality of life – it makes them better off in very practical terms — for example, helping make people smarter or fitter or better connected or more productive, etc.

The big shift in branding that Haque is describing here seems to me to align really well with government. Us govvies never really could work on a status-based level anyway (somehow “pay your taxes – all the cool kids are!” just doesn’t cut it).

But the idea of a brand that not only does no harm, but contributes positively to my quality of life? Sign me up. If people’s expectations really are shifting to what Haque calls “allocentric demand” – from valuing individual status to valuing health, nature, future, society, community, then this really aligns well with what in my view the institution of government is supposed to be about.

Here’s a thought that occurred to me as I watched this video again:  is this just a case of the private sector just catching up to where gov has been all along?

Content Strategy?

“Content strategy…” hmm, what’s that?

@halvorson‘s definition (yes, I am in the midst of reading Content Strategy for the Web):

Content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable content.

Which sounds great, but deceptively simple.

Anyhow, content strategy is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. And will be a lot more, since “content” became my responsibility in the shuffle at work.

See, we’ve got a ton of it (about 100M web pages on the gc.ca domain, last I heard). And a lot of it’s out of control.

  • ROT: redundant, out-of-date, trivial – think of all those forgotten web pages hiding on your servers that have been sitting around since the 90s.
  • Ineffectively presented for the web – think of publications and brochures converted to HTML, with no thought to whether this makes sense.
  • Endlessly proliferating – as every “bright” idea from every corner of the org seems to make its way online…

And it’s about to get a whole lot worse, as gov content moves beyond our websites and into mobile apps, social networks, open data, etc.

Yup. Time for a plan. (& it better be a better one than this).

So the first question: Where to start?

More to come…

Update: In the original version of this post, I cited the wrong number of GoC web pages — there’s 100M rather than 1M. Thanks to @spydergrrl for flagging this!