Author: Denise Eisner

Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.


Web Renewal: It’s not all about Users

You read that correctly: developing an effective web presence means it’s not all about users. My colleagues and clients who have heard my relentless ode to user-centric design might be spilling their lattes about now. Lest anyone think I’ve lost my senses, let me add a bit of context.

The discipline of user-centred design takes into account many aspects, including detailed knowledge of user tasks, user behaviours (accessing a site at particular times), conventions in interface design (having a search box available on every page), and a laundry list of known ways that humans interact with a product (we are attracted to images of the human face). Our approach to design thus attempts to grab all this knowledge up front, analyze it and then come up with a design approach that is defensible based on the inputs.

Yet this research-driven approach can overlook an important driver, and one that flies in the face of user-centricity. If we also care about success-driven design, then how do we define success? We could define it by users who complete tasks. We could define it by the clarity of our navigation labels. That is common practitioner thinking and I’m guilty of it as well.

The person who cares most about success is the head of the organization, i.e. CEO, Deputy Minister, or Senior Department Official. They deeply care about success and make sure their managers care about it too. Government departments’ Program Activity Architectures (PAAs) and Business Plans codify the measures of success for their organizations. So why don’t we consider these measures of success?

The answer is fairly simple: senior management has yet to frame success in terms that meaningfully translate to the web. By the time the PAA comes out, perhaps with an associated performance measurement framework, success is defined as page views. These might have been interesting metrics ten years ago, but organizations with mature web performance strategies have abandoned that as a viable measure of success. Visiting a web page no longer cuts it (the user might have come, saw, and left in 5 seconds). So as Web practitioners and strategists, we have to start demonstrating how success should be measured against departmental priorities and communicating that up the chain, for example, as the percentage of users who do or do not:

  • Repeatedly visit a site and/or consume a minimum amount of content or a specific set of pages related to a departmental priority;
  • Are willing to share our priority site content with their personal networks;
  • Begin an RSS subscription to get content updates about a new initiative;
  • Participate in online consultations.

So how do we communicate up? The successful Web teams I’ve seen in government have created open lines of communication all the way to the DG of Communications, and that person, who cares about success, becomes the lead evangelist at the senior management table. Among his or her peers, their understanding of how the web can move the organization forward on its objectives carries weight. So we inform, we educate and we demonstrate to the DG through a series of small successes how the right kind of measurement can demonstrate bigger success for the department. We showcase, we pilot and we test, test, and test our designs to give evidence of improvement. We build research plans and performance frameworks and we share our progress with the DG on a regular basis.

And we never give up.

Denise Eisner is a Senior Consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice.

Standard on Web Usability: Race to July 2013

You can almost see the steam rising off the hundreds of keyboards across government as Communications and IT teams hurtle toward the July 2013 deadline to meet the Standard on Web Usability. Some teams are already there with their first launch while others toil nights and weekends to get their first iteration past MO and into the cyber sphere. What if the project is just getting going, or is stalled in midstream?

My advice to attendees at GTEC this week was to take a process check. At this point a complete site redesign, with nine months to go and three of those in the fourth quarter, raises a lot of risk. The biggest risk is that you throw a lot of effort and resources at the site with the expectation by management that the web will be “fixed”, or at least done until the next standard comes along. This kind of thinking explains why most web projects fail: they focus on an output (a new standard) and not the outcome (a better user experience for audiences).

A pragmatic approach to hitting the July deadline is guided by three principles:

  1. Move from the Me to the U-ser – Instead of saying “our site is for all Canadians”, plan a working session to define the audiences that you want to reach, and those that you are reaching. Make that assessment into a set of design parameters for changes to the information architecture, content or application design. Then build on the data you have to identify the top tasks for those users. Don’t look at what other people are doing; in fact, you can eliminate the environmental scan from your project plan right now. Other departments have different audiences, content and user tasks. Instead, focus on your content and your users. Pull together any statistics, surveys or usability testing results to understand user needs. Follow that up by forming a user advisory committee (aka stakeholder engagement) to determine specific content needs.
  2. Make tweaks – With your users’ tasks now determined, identify their points of pain. (If you don’t know, take to the call centre. They are a goldmine of information.) Prioritize the issues, then determine what can be tweaked in the time you have. Do some simple prototypes and test your assumptions by asking people (friends, family, your dentist) if they can find a piece of information in your site architecture or from a home page layout. You haven’t yet spent one dollar in IT development but you know the problems and some potential solutions that have been put in front of real human beings. And you have real data, something that is defensible.
  3. Go the distance – The momentum of a site launch is an opportunity to squelch the “web is a project” mentality and advocate for more mature web management. Do you have a site management policy? If not, start building one and schedule the team kick-off a couple days after the site launch (presumably you’ll be recovering from your success). Communicate your plans up, down and laterally and invite the key players to your planning sessions (e.g. IM, IT). If you meet resistance, ask your management this question: “If we do nothing differently, what will happen to this site in two years?” One department that didn’t get past that question saw its reformed site page count explode 100% in two years.

It will be a slog to the finish line but by focusing on user tasks, prioritizing and fixing the big problems and ensuring that the web channel is well managed, government departments will see bigger payoffs over the long term.

Denise Eisner is a Senior Consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice.

Systemscope Now On THS

Systemscope has qualified under the Government of Canada’s Temporary Help Services (THS) procurement vehicles for Supply Arrangement and Standing Offer.

THS allows clients to procure professional services up to $400,000 or 48 consecutive weeks, whichever comes first. A call-up/contract can be extended by an additional 24 consecutive weeks but must have the prior approval of PWGSC.

For the THS Standing offer, Systemscope is qualified under these two streams:

  1. Human Resources Management (Sub-Stream 5e)
  2. Policy and Advisory Services (Sub-Stream 5f)

THS is one of four options available to departments for contracting.

Our New Space: Introducing The Systemscope Lounge – Our Creative Commons

The new Systemscope office space will provide a panoply of collaboration opportunities for Systemscope, the centre-piece of which will be the new “Systemscope Lounge”. The idea emerged after last year’s GTEC conference, where the new conference centre offered a space that, while functional, left us feeling more disengaged from our peers and clients.Systemscope Lounge

With the new space, the “Systemscope Lounge” idea suddenly became a permanent reality. The “Systemscope Lounge” has been designated as both a physical space and a branded source for creative ideas and products, where new, creative and provocative thinking could emerge out of the professional practice of the firm. This will allow the firm to maintain its reliable and recognized “brand” but engage with the more “out-there” thinking.

The lounge’s physical presence boasts elegant and timeless leather couches, cowhides stools and rugs reminiscent of the mid-century modern aesthetic that inspires so much design creativity in this age. This informal and creative space will be used by Systemscope staffers and clients alike to surface ideas and truths that are outside-the-box of past and current traditional thinking; ideas that may, or may not, move to the “Systemscope Lab” for their formalization into architectures, models or methodologies.

This approach is also getting another space in virtual reality. With the redesign of the Systemscope Website, the “Ideas Lab” will serve as a virtual platform for any and all good thinking to emerge from communal Systemscope efforts. We’re not just talking current blog posts here. Content ranges from “freshest” thinking to “preserved” classics, and is topped off with the ThoughtMix section, where single images or quick ideas are brought together in a primordial soup of creative thinking.

“It is amazing to think that a physical space could come to embody a theoretical ideal, but this is what we see the new Systemscope Lounge embodying,” says Denis Barbeau, Systemscope Partner and Practice Lead for Strategic Business Consulting. “The Systemscope Lounge is a physical environment in which we and our clients can think aloud, unfettered by the daily reality of what we see and are told are constraints, allowing us to push the boundaries of conventional wisdom to find strategies and tactics that will allow our clients to thrive in these times of transformation.”

Five Things We Learned about Getting Rid of ROT

By Denise Eisner

When we first blogged about removing Redundant, Outdated and Trivial (ROT) content in January 2011, we suggested that barring any other major drains on the team’s time, running a ROT exercise involving 5,000 web pages should take approximately two months to complete.

What a difference a year makes!

Having led and supported several ROT initiatives in various federal departments including scientific and regulatory agencies, it’s clear that a reset is needed on the potential risks and constraints for this exercise.

Based on growing experience, here are five key lessons we’ve learned to date:

  1. Communication is key:communicate often and well to the people performing content assessments. Keep in mind that they were likely just were handed another big task on top of all the other tasks piling up on their desks.Communications activities for a successful ROT exercise could include:
    • Holding targeted training sessions for similar content owner groups to explain how to assess and evaluate content for ROT
    • Holding information sessions during the process to cover various issues that come up
    • Creating an online content owner/publisher intranet section where reviewers can share tips, issues, etc.Be aware of vacation times and training periods to align deadlines according to the availability of stakeholders and team members.
  2. Calling all content owners! Anyone? Anyone? – Identifying a current caretaker who takes active ownership of the content is required for a successful ROT exercise; however, content created ten years ago is unlikely to be managed today by its creator. If there is no successful assignment of content to its rightful business owner, content that isn’t mandated or legislated should be removed from the live site.
  3. Broken links are guaranteed – Making content decisions might be the easiest part of the exercise. As one department discovered, finding and removing all the links to the deleted content in the absence of a CMS is a nightmare. Account for this step in the project plan.
  4. You are not alone – There is a lot of support available to departments on how to properly conduct a ROT exercise. There are tools on the Treasury Board and GCPedia websites, as well as a community of experienced ROTites who use social networks under hashtags such as #goc.
  5. Update or draft a department-wide content lifecycle policy – The policy implications for removal of web content dips into several domains, including information management, ATIP and legal. Having a solid policy in place ensures that web content is current, reliable and well-managed.

So could a ROT exercise for 5,000 web pages take only two months to complete?

It’s possible, with the following pieces in place:

  1. A well-written strategy that includes communications activities
  2. A project plan with clear deadlines for making it happen
  3. Dedicated resources to complete review and evaluation tasks, as well as project management and oversight tasks

The success of a department’s ROT endeavour relies on going in with eyes wide open and a willingness to accept and deal with roadblocks.

Do you have tips to share on your ROT experience? We’d love to hear from you.

Special Series: Taming the Intranet Beast, Part Five

Part Five: the Intranet Dream Team

In the final instalment of a five-part series on Taming the Intranet Beast, senior consultant Denise Eisner shows how the dream team can be realized, even in times of austerity.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s list of best Intranets of 2012 suggests that proper resourcing for an organization’s internal web site needs to approach a ratio of one resource for every 1,000 employees. That figure takes into account some allowances for temporary outside help for particular functions, but on the whole, the ratio seems right.

But can smaller government departments today manage Intranets with one, two, or three individuals? The answer is a qualified yes, depending whether:

  • The individual/team member has the requisite communications, marketing, analytics and business skills to multi-task effectively;
  • The web content lifecycle has been defined and informs what happens to web content from inception to removal;
  • Governance is in place to make strategic decisions;
  • Tactical decisions are made within the Intranet team;
  • The design, structure, functionality and performance measurement components of site management are managed centrally; and
  • Content contributors are relied upon as local editors providing story ideas and web content, not as web experts.

How could these activities be realized when budgets are tight, and likely to get tighter? Consider the future state of a departmental Intranet if nothing changes:

  • Employees waste 90 cents per minute looking for content on a poorly structure site;
  • New content costing upwards of $800-1000 per page (after writing, approvals and publishing) keeps getting adding to the site with no strategy or lifecycle guidance governing its existence; and
  • There is a risk of limited understanding among employees of the department’s top priorities since they are not effectively messaged using the channels that employees want and need.

Given these direct and indirect costs to the organization, maintaining a status quo for the Intranet will cost more, and the performance records should bear that out. A well-conceived resourcing solution plus efforts to shore up governance and strategy offers senior management a more cost-efficient and sustainable approach to managing the Intranet channel.

View the rest of this series:

Special Series: Taming the Intranet Beast, Part 4

Part Four: Get Serious about Intranet Search

In the fourth of a five-part series on Taming the Intranet Beast, senior consultant Denise Eisner asks if search is so important, why are there no resources allocated to it?

Ask a government communications executive what they see as the problem with their Intranet site and invariably the answer is “our search engine doesn’t work.” Colourful variants on that response aside, it’s clear that management understands that search is an important function that users need to find content easily.

Then we ask the web teams and their IT colleagues how many resources they have devoted to search. Answer? None.

That disconnect between acknowledgement of the single most important function on a website and the reality of no resourcing to support it defies logic. So why does this happen?

First of all, search is partly technical. It involves an IT tool. IT largely sees their role with respect to search as infrastructure provider, with little to no maintenance required. Meantime, Communications is not comfortable with new technology that is outside their area of expertise.

Second, search requires understanding of how information should be classified so it can be retrieved. This would be the rightful domain of IM, but sadly not too many departments see it that way. The result is that the metadata is poor or nonexistent and therefore the search results have little meaning.

Third and lastly, search needs constant testing to make sure it is performing as expected. I have yet to see a usability or public opinion research plan that incorporates testing for Intranet search.

So management sees the problem, but no one appears to have the solution? Not quite. Some departments have taken up the cause with vengeance, and rather than wait for the solution to be bestowed upon them, have gone out and procured a decent tool (Google Search Appliance for example), configured it to meet their needs, tested it and then monitored it for performance. Voila: search now works with some degree of predictability. For one department that meant a quasi-full-time resource embedded on the web team, who brought the requisite skills to make it happen. It also meant the full support of management.

Search on an Intranet site can be improved, as long as it’s accepted that resources are required to manage it.

In the fifth and final part of this series, we nominate the contenders for the Intranet dream team.

Special Series: Taming the Intranet Beast, Part 3

Part Three: Build Intranets for Tasks, Not Branches

In the third of a five-part series on Taming the Intranet Beast, senior consultant Denise Eisner shows how putting tasks ahead of employee newsletters is smart Intranet management.

For departmental Intranets, there’s a pervasive site structure model that says each branch should get an equal portion of the real estate in the site navigation, regardless of how many or how few tasks are performed online in that section of the site. This model says that equal standing is the best structure for representing the entire organization.

There’s another common model that says that the more corporate messaging you place on the home page, the more likely that employees will be knowledgeable about departmental priorities and strategic plans.

Industry research and government’s own usability data indicates that neither of these models improve task completion, and instead end up costing the organization in lost productivity. Having employees search for content to complete a task costs government organizations an average rate of 90 cents per minute, making obstacles like two-year-old newsletter articles, untagged PowerPoint presentations and multiple copies of the same HR policies some very expensive roadblocks to completing basic tasks.

What are those basic tasks? For a start, anything that answers the basic questions about pay and vacation would meet the requirements of every employee. Beyond that, well-architected Intranets address such varied tasks as:

  • How do I book a boardroom?
  • What are the requirements for booking my first business trip?
  • Find financial codes
  • Understand the process for hiring
  • Find information about health plans for dependents

A task inventory helps establish known tasks against existing web content assets. Within this spreadsheet (or database or CMS), site managers can weight tasks according to web path analysis from analytics data, user surveys, and card sorting to determine which tasks should dominate the site architecture.

Collaborative tools also fit within this framework but their inclusion must suit the culture of the organization. The gamut of tasks involving collaborative tools includes:

  • Sharing best practices or project updates among practitioners on a wiki
  • Using personal employee profiles to publish skills sets, past projects and contact information
  • Document sharing platforms for special projects
  • Texting tools to cut down on email

At some point it will be obvious to the web team that some branches within the department have relatively less Intranet content than others that correlates to what employees want to do online. Publishing short branch descriptions that link to key documents on a document management system can address these lower-demand areas. (If no such system exists, one possible solution is to provide an email address for document requests for that branch.) Not placing this lower-demand content online frees up the site for content that fulfills employee task requirements.

In Part Four of this series, we break down the benefits of having an Intranet search engine that actually works.