Archive for the ‘web communications’ Category

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.

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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.

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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…

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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?

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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.

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ROT is in the air. Not because it’s late fall and everything is dying in the garden, no. I’m talking about web ROT – redundant, outdated and trivial content that clutters up big websites.

In the Government of Canada context, with CLF updates coming down the pipe, the opportunity to reduce the ROT [NB internal GCpedia link] is there. You’re gonna have to update your site anyhow, so why not kill off those old pages that have been online & unchanged since the 1990s?

It’s a noble quest, but I do wonder if it’s tilting at windmills.

The “reduce the ROT” idea is basically to prune back your content so that what’s left is the good stuff. The quality stuff that most of your users want, the long neck of your website. The top tasks.

Thing is, to remove the ROT, precious hours of your web team’s time will be spent identifying, unposting and archiving all that mess. If your site is big enough, it’s a question of many hours on that “mind-numbing” journey through the depths of your web content. & if responsibility for web is shared (as in decentralized situations that are still very common in government web management), you’re likely going to have to do battle with small-minded content owners who refuse to see the big picture.

Weeding out the ROT is actually an indirect way to fix your website. So instead, why not just cut to the chase and push the good stuff to the top of the pile? Rather than cutting away ROT, why not directly optimize your killer content?

Here’s some ideas on how that might happen:

  • tweak your on-site search to push the top content up the results
  • offsite, enhance the findability of your best content via SEO
  • provide dedicated landing pages for top tasks and content — and then make sure search results and site nav get you to these
  • tweak your nav to provide more direct paths to the good stuff
  • feature the good stuff prominently on your home page
  • and most of all, switch your focus from managing content to managing those key tasks.

… and there’s many more things that can be done. That’s just a quick off-the-top-of-my-head starter list. What are you doing to bring quality forward on your site?

(Of course, both reducing the ROT and optimizing the quality content would be the best possible approach, but since I live the reality of limited time and resources, I need to prioritize… and so these days, I’m putting my energy towards surfacing the good stuff first.)

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Here’s an example of a common mobile frustration alluded to in the comments on my last post (http://wp.me/paqt7-pj).

Several people in my networks have been sharing links via Twitter to an article in Backbone Magazine on some of Canada’s e-government wins : http://ow.ly/2Fr8w

Last night and this morning, I’ve tried to click through from different tweets while reading via mobile — but instead of being served the article I want, I keep getting bumped to the front page of Backbone’s mobile site: http://m.backbonemag.com/ While there’s other interesting stuff on that home page, it’s not what I wanted to read, so highly frustrating.

This is an example of what commenter Aaron called “forcing [users] to the mobile interface based on detection” and correctly identified as a major no-no. The solution? I think Aaron’s approach makes sense:

I think the ticket is to push for mobilization (top tasks interface) supported by miniaturization (mobile-friendly stylesheets).

The problem with a top tasks interface is that it is usually only served up to those coming in on homepages or major landing pages. With the propensity of Google searches (especially on smartphones) the mobile interface is never even seen to those landing “deep” in content pages. Forcing them to the mobile interface based on detection is a major no-no. Miniaturization would reinforce the content linking strategy, such that mobile users would not be unduly inconvenienced when navigating from mobilized version to standard website content.

So basically: when pursuing your mobile web strategy, your first objective should be to avoid frustrating your users: don’t prevent them from getting at what’s available on your “normal” website.

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The Government of Canada’s Common Look and Feel standards are the playbook for maintaining our websites. They were last updated in 2006, before the buzz on “social media,” before the explosion of the mobile web. (“Web 2.0” was a major trend at the time, one that these standards more or less avoided completely.)

Now, updates to CLF are in the works, but until they are released, we’re still playing by 2006 rules. & we all know that four years is an eternity online.

This nugget on mobile got me thinking:

The spread of mobile media devices, whether smartphones or iPads or Nooks, has led to tailored software applications that make reading text and watching video easier on screens smaller than those on personal computers. So people are not viewing this mobile media through a Web browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox, a central point in the Wired “Web Is Dead” article. But the books, magazines and movies viewed on an iPad, for example, are downloaded over the Internet. Indeed, Wired added the headline declaration, “Long Live the Internet.” Similarly, the case for Facebook’s fall someday is that it is a cluttered Web creation when mobile devices demand sleek, simple designs. [via Now Playing – Night of the Living Tech – NYTimes.com]

The same can be said for GoC CLF-compliant websites — they are “cluttered web creations” that may happen to be viewable via mobile devices, but provide relatively poor user experience.

So for me, a mobile site or app is needed. A colleague remarked to me recently that he felt that given improvements in how the browsers work in smartphones, it would make more sense to focus efforts on dedicated mobile apps. I’m not so sure. I don’t have access to an iPhone, but I can tell you that the browser on the Blackberry is, to put it mildly, not so hot.

& there’s another reason why I think mobile sites have their place — in a lot of cases, I feel that users would have a low level of motivation to go through the effort of downloading and installing a dedicated app to interact with GoC content.

Anyhow, here’s a couple of screencaps from my Blackberry browser (version 4.7.1, so not the latest but fairly recent) that illustrate how CLF sites look when you first access them. If you are using a desktop display (such as what I’m using now), keep in mind that these look much smaller on a mobile device.

I find I always need to spend some time zooming and panning to get at readable content. And if I’m not familiar with the site in question, while I’m exploring, I’m also trying to envisage what it “ought” to look like if it were on a laptop- or desktop-sized screen. Even if you know the site well, it often takes several tries to make the page readable. I’m very familiar with the weather forecast for Ottawa example for instance (it’s the start page on my BBerry browser), and I’ve got the routine for it down pat: on load, click the magnifying glass, then scroll to the text forecast, then hit the menu button and select column view to render it in a way that I can read it without squinting.

I’m not sure I’d want to force my users to put up with this kind of experience. Patient and forgiving users (like me!) are few and far between. But even the impatient and unforgiving are starting to use the mobile web in a big way — so we should be adapting to this in a way that lets them get at our content with a minimum of hassle.

A proper mobile site, such as the ones for CIC or PHAC, would be optimized for the screen size on which you are working and would allow you to starting using it productively right away.

The approach that CIC and PHAC appear to have taken is to create a separate mobile site that focuses on top-task content drawn from the main site. Another route could be to implement mobile styles on the main site itself so that users can experience any page without all the zooming and panning. I can think of advantages and pitfalls to both — what’s your take?

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Recent data from Twitter showing the plethora of devices and apps used to access the service

Twitter released data last week showing an explosion of mobile use of their service:

Total mobile users has jumped 62 percent since mid-April, and, remarkably, 16 percent of all new users to Twitter start on mobile now, as opposed to the five percent before we launched our first Twitter-branded mobile client. As we had hoped in April, these clients are bringing more people into Twitter, and, even better, they are attracting and retaining active users. Indeed, 46 percent of active users make mobile a regular part of their Twitter experience. [Official Twitter Blog: The Evolving Ecosystem]

That’s a lot of different numbers,  but basically it boils down to this: the Twitter experience is transforming into a mobile one.

How I tweet. Mobile clients highlighted.

This certainly rings true for me personally — For example, my TweetStats shows that since staring on Twitter, mobile has been a very common part of how I tweet — I’ve highlighted the mobile clients in the graph at right, which shows the breakdown in clients used for 4029 of my tweets since I started using Twitter. Combined, my mobile apps — UberTwitter, Dabr, the official Blackberry app and TwitterBerry — accounted for 1709 of my tweets. If I were able to look at amore recent slice of this data, I’m sure it would show that mobile clients account for the majority of my tweeting. (And that’s just my output, rather than looking at how I consume others’ tweets. I often start my day by grabbing my ‘Berry and checking my Twitter timeline and lists, so you get the idea how that goes.)

Importantly, I’m not just issuing and reading tweets via mobile. I’m following links. Lots of them. As we all know link sharing is one of the most common ways of using Twitter. And I can tell you that when I get to the other end of those links, I much prefer dealing with site that’s optimized for mobile than one that’s not. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

What’s the takeaway for us GoC web communications types? If you are running a Twitter account that posts links to your website into the Twitterverse (and soon that’ll be all of us), it looks like its time to start thinking about taking your website mobile if you haven’t already.

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The dominant way in which the Government of Canada manages its web presence is along organizational lines. Each dept or agency has its own website and manages its own content and services. But does this make sense? Should the overall federal government web presence use organizational boundaries as its main organizing principle?

I think maybe not. it is a truism in government communications that our citizens and stakeholders don’t understand or care how government is organized, or which dept or agency is talking to them. All they want is to receive the services that they are after. They tend to see the GoC as a monolithic, singular entity.

But when it comes to web I don’t think one monolithic uber-site is the answer. Online, segmentation is the order of the day — it is niche that plays well. Digital communities tend to coalesce around issues or topics rather than organizations. So targeted sites divvied up thematically — regardless of which orgs have a stake in the topic.

An example: Today, GoC consumer information and services are spread across a range of sites belonging to a number of different orgs — e.g. Industry Canada (in several spots), the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy, the Competition Bureau, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, Health Canada, NRCan, etc. Why not collect all that into a single consumers.gc.ca site. This would be a more truly citizen-centric approach to delivering web.

I’m fully aware that there are some examples of GoC web presences developed along these lines — for instance science.gc.ca, canadabusiness.gc.ca. And if memory serves, this was one of the principles driving the old Government Online (GOL) initiative. But the job was never really finished, and the topic sites that are active today coexist uneasily with organizational ones.

I also realize that what I’m suggesting would be a massive undertaking. Reorganizing the entire .gc.ca web from a collection of mostly org sites to a set of theme ones would take years of effort, not to mention impressively strong willed leadership. After all, trying to keep even a single agency site from its tendency to become organized by org chart is difficult.

Gerry McGovern says that the “essential challenge of the Web is to become customer-centric.” In government terms, our central web management challenge is to become citizen-centric. If we are going to rise to this challenge, if we truly want to become citizen-centric online, then dropping organizational sites in favour to subject sites is probably the way to go.

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