Author: Denise Eisner

Denise Eisner is a senior-level content/UX strategist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a senior consultant at Systemscope, Denise’s experience and specializations include content strategy and design, writing/editing, prototyping, usability testing, web analytics, project management and change management.


Five 2014 Public Sector Predictions: Looking Back to Look Forward

As health-based resolutions ramp up across Canada to counter last month’s holiday socializing, the Canadian government jumps into 2014 with a slate of promising initiatives designed to trim the fat, so to speak, from the public purse. A review of how some of those initiatives initially fared in 2013 says a lot about what could or could not work in the government’s favour in the coming year. read more

Best Practices: Rationale or Rhetoric?

As consultants we get asked to develop a content strategy, governance model or performance management framework based on “best practices”. In response we cite research studies, analytics and trends or methodologies in user experience design or web strategy that have become commonplace in the field and have yielded results for our clients.

read more

Content Strategies to Prevent Future Government ROT

The push to remove Redundant, Outdated and Trivial (ROT) content on government websites has allowed departments and agencies to reconsider what content is needed by different audiences, and how those audiences want that content delivered. We’ve observed productive discussions across the National Capital Region over the past year on the purpose of the web channel and how it can both help users do the tasks they come to website to do and departments promote their new initiatives and programs.

ROT exercises however are often framed as a project and not a way of doing business. This creates the risk of falling back into an old pattern, which is publishing content that is of little value to users and/or doesn’t successfully increase awareness or engagement with government priorities. We’ve seen one department undergo a comprehensive content “pruning” two years ago, only to have their content holdings balloon by 246%, a mere 24 months later.

A major contributor to the persistence of ROT is the lack of anything that helps us determine what should and shouldn’t be published. This is a content strategy. Content strategies define:

  • What goes on the web and why
  • Which content aligns with which tasks
  • How web content should be presented and structured
  • How to balance user needs with organizational priorities
  • Who makes decisions on the web
  • How content will be optimized for findability and promotion
  • How web performance is measured

An effective content strategy requires involvement by a multi-disciplinary team comprised of communications and information management specialists, senior and program management and IT. In a Government of Canada context, the strategy should align with these success-centric drivers:

  • Program Alignment Architectures (PAA)
  • Strategic business plans
  • Enterprise business architectures
  • Content standards
  • User research (identifying tasks and demographic data)
  • Communications plans for web campaigns

This admittedly is not a small effort, but it is one that can be incrementally developed as time and resources allow. A work plan that incorporates one or two elements can be managed on a quarterly basis. Using this phased approach, the elements that support smart decision making for the online presence can build over time and improve outcomes that are valued by the organization.

April 2013: Why does this matter now?

We know the Government of Canada is consolidating into a single government website but we don’t know much more than that at this time. This leaves departments wondering if they should do anything at all. A content strategy approach is one of the best things you can do to prepare yourself for the future in the absence of knowing exactly how things will play out. On the one hand, if there are delays to the consolidation exercise, you have put some foundational pieces in place to improve the user experience for your audiences. On the other hand, if things move quickly, you have a precise understanding of what you and yours users need out of the web.

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

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.”