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.


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.


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