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I had a stimulating conversation yesterday with colleagues about some of the issues we are grappling with when developing our web presences for government. We basically boiled it down to a pair of intertwined issues.

Assumption-based design: making choices in your design process based on assumptions about the intended audiences, rather than facts. This happens all the time — often in expressed as “design for my [insert stereotype of older, out-of-touch family member].” Where we imagine how our mum or uncle or whomever would react to our nav bar or wireframe concepts, colour scheme, etc., when faced with it onscreen. This tends to be the situation in organizations that avoid user testing or those that under-value analytics data. (Here’s a great example of the pitfalls of assumptions guiding the design process in another field — an incredibly hokey mobile phone for seniors.)

Self-referential design: designing for oneself rather than for the audience. The web developer or content owner is not like a more typical user, so their savviness and familiarity with the material actually prevents them from being able to solve the users’ problems. The frame of reference is too different. Again, this happens in environments where user testing doesn’t happen or analytics data are ignored. (Cooper et al discuss self-referential design in books like About Face and The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.)

Basically, these two issues result in building web presences based on what we think we know about our audiences, without actually verifying it. Then we solve users’ (imagined) problems in ways that make sense for us rather than for them. We don’t really take into account what our audience’s needs are. The result? Ineffective web presences the provide difficult user experiences.

This is about valuing measurement. When it comes to government communications, my experience has been that a lack of testing and measurement is an endemic condition no matter whether you’re talking about print publishing, PR, marketing campaigns, internal communications or any other area. The sole exception might be advertising, and then only because the rules we have in the Government of Canada force it on us. In an environment where we are competing with each other for resources and everyone is strapped for time, measurement tends to be the first thing that gets knocked off the budgets. Why bother, we think, when there’s always the next project/issue/crisis to focus on?

Does this sound familiar? What’s the situation in your organization?

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