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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?

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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  • ROT: redundant, out-of-date, trivial – think of all those forgotten web pages hiding on your servers that have been sitting around since the 90s.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!

Reduce the ROT (or Not)

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.)

What does this sound like?

Encourage public service managers and employees to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives they are familiar with and for which they have responsibility. Openness in government promotes accessibility and accountability. It enables informed public participation in the formulation of policy, ensures fairness in decision making, and enables the public to assess performance. An open and democratic government implies that all employees have a role in communicating with the public while respecting the constitution and laws of Canada. Public service managers and employees must respect privacy rights, matters before the courts, national security, Cabinet confidences and ministerial responsibility. They serve the public interest best by communicating openly and responsively about policies, programs, services and initiatives they help to administer, while treating sensitive information with the discretion it requires.

A strong rationale for government bureaucrats to widely adopt social media communications, perhaps?  (Complete with caveats about doing so responsibly). Surprise — it comes from the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada.

Interesting: it looks like this has been part of the communications policy from at least 2002. Well before most of us had any idea about blogging, web 2.0 or social media. Go ahead, take a look at the text of the archived 2002 policy statement, it says the same thing.

(The GoC Communications Policy is a bit of a laundry list of requirements — 31 in total — for various aspects of communications: advertising, publishing, web, crisis communications, media relations, corporate identity, and so on. It’s easy to get lost in the details of each of these requirements and forget the overarching principles, laid out in the policy statement at the front end of the document. I’ve often skipped past this section — usually b/c I’m looking for some specific detail buried deeper in the document. But the other day I re-read the policy statement again for the first time in a long while, and that’s when this jumped out at me.)

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.

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?