Category: User Experience

No One Wants to Follow a Government Department

by Denise Eisner

There’s an interesting yet bewildering range of efforts by federal government to be in the social media sphere. There’s the call to action: “Stay Connected”, “Stay Informed”, or “Get Connected”. There’s the obvious: labelling the area above the commercial icons as “Social Media”. And then there’s “Follow Us.”

Aside from maybe one or two notable exceptions, there’s scant evidence that users want to follow an entire department. Government departments are not task-related. They are large organizations with multiple services that may or may not translate into discrete tasks performed by users with different needs.

What users would follow however (and already are in some cases), are themed updates that correlate with tasks in their personal or professional life:

  • Alerts and recalls
  • Border crossing times
  • Harmful chemical substances in consumer products
  • Air quality readings in my geographic area
  • Vaccination clinic locations and hours of operation
  • Upcoming deadlines for public consultations
  • Tips and deadlines related to business tax filing
  • Deadlines for grants and contributions
  • Updates during natural disasters

Notice that these are highly specialized pieces of information. That’s intrinsic to what social media was meant to do: provide a communal place to share information related to a topic or event that a group of people care about.

Here are several ways to break out of the “Follow me” cycle and turn that into “Let me help you”:

  • Identify key tasks. Your web and/or marketing teams might already have the research on this one.
  • Prioritize which tasks are performed most often by audience groups. There are likely some overlaps between what different groups need with respect to timely information.
  • Brainstorm ways you can deliver value-add information via your Twitter feed or Facebook page that would correlate to users’ top tasks.
  • Determine how to measure Followers and Likes to track performance.
  • Develop a linking strategy from your updates to departmental or specialized site content and track that performance as well.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice.

Closing the Intranet Hellmouth

by Denise Eisner

Dark, scary portals to hell typified by the Buffyverse’s Hellmouth, or “an area fraught with massive supernatural activity” require slayer-level strength to manage effectively (it also helps to know some nifty martial arts moves). So too, do some organization intranets. The byzantine navigation, mysterious rogue sites on separate servers, and complex pages overrun with management objectives, frameworks and strategies on some Intranets make one want to click away as soon as possible. Or, for some web managers, metaphorically stake the demon.

Short of enlisting superhuman forces, there are five things organizations can do to tame their Intranet Hellmouth:

  1. Focus on employee services – There are two fundamental things people care about when it comes to their relationship with an employer: money and vacation. Manage the top user tasks related to those two areas and your web team will score big on client satisfaction. Is it easy to find the leave request form or is it eight clicks from the home page? Catalogue the top user tasks and let those guide the navigation structure.
  2. Ask real users what they think, not stakeholders – Not everyone in the organization uses the site: some people only use one or two apps or have someone else do it for them. It’s challenging to be all things to all people. Listen to the folks who are your true users. Watch them use the site for insight into behaviours.
  3. Clean out the ROT – Make sure the site isn’t cluttered with redundant, outdated or trivial content. That’s a sure way to waste users’ time. Conduct a content audit and perform mini-audits each quarter.
  4. Be a word count freak – Marissa Mayer at Google recounts how they strive to keep the word count on their home page at 28. That kind of ruthless editing takes leadership and an insane amount of negotiating. But the results at Google speak for themselves.
  5. Stay human – Intranets should not be soulless, corporate bulletin boards. Keep the community vibe going with contests, blogs, surveys and profiles of what employees are doing in and outside of work. That said, manage this activity with communication and information architecture specialists who can apply usability, content and design best practices for professional polish.

Are you sitting on an Intranet Hellmouth? Tell us your story.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice.

Clean out the ROT in your Web Closet

There’s something eerily satisfying about cleaning out a closet, or at least it is to chaosphobes likes myself who can’t function in a messy space. With less stuff to search through and now organized in neat categories, that closet is a place where I know I’ll find what I need and whether there’s a gap that has to be filled.

There’s a strong parallel to looking for content on a large Web site. Too much badly organized and irrelevant content makes finding the good stuff harder and more frustrating. But cleaning out the ROT (Redundant, Outdated or Trivial content), is not exactly a priority for most government departments. Putting up content, particularly reports and news releases, seems to dominate the priorities for most Web teams. And so the ROT builds up, until someone says a major overhaul is needed.

A major overhaul is like moving to a new house: expensive, stressful and time-consuming. A regular content audit however, is like cleaning out a closet every so often: cheaper, manageable and faster. For a site or subsite of less than 5,000 pages, it can be done in approximately two months, barring any other major drains on the team’s time. The steps are straight forward:

  • Designate a project manager to oversee the content audit and track progress.
  • Capture all the existing content information in a spreadsheet.
  • Determine what you want to know about your content: accuracy, findability in search engines, usefulness to audiences, etc. and share that methodology with the project team.
  • Engage content owners to identify their content and determine its accuracy, and web specialists to rate the content’s findability and usefulness.
  • Collate the findings to see what content can be archived, refurbished or kept as is.
  • Report recommendations to senior management for action.

If nothing has been done to the website in three years, a good content audit should identify at least 50% ROT. One of our clients just completed an audit with 67% ROT. They now can focus on improving the remaining content, and thus make their site more useful to the people that visit it.

With departments starting the planning process for the next fiscal year, now is the time to determine which older sections of the Web site (or the entire site) need a review, identify available project resources and build timelines for a content audit.

User Centred vs. Audience Based

In a recent presentation on Information Architecture at Health Canada, I was asked the question “should we be targeting our users or our audience”? This question was followed by a bit of a debate and confusion over the matter, roping in other concepts like user centred design and audience based navigation to further complicate things.

Following the meeting I circulated a short document to bring clarity to the issue and thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the concepts as I’m sure Health Canada isn’t the only organization users and audience have some delta between them.

Here is how I like to define the difference between the two:

The difference between users and audience isn’t rocket science, but it is an important distinction to make when making design decisions. Following that thread, I want to clarify two design approaches that are related to (and confused with) user and audience: User Centred Design and Audience Based Navigation.

User Centered: A website that is designed to address the needs and behaviours of the different users of your site. This includes both the users who are coming to your website today and the audience that you would like to have visiting your website (See image above). Effective user centered web design balances the needs of different users by following all of the following guiding principles:

All users want content that is:

  • Well written and easy to understand
  • Easy to find
  • Clear and to the point
  • Helps them achieve their purpose for visiting your site

Different user types may want:

  • Different amounts of detail and technical information
  • Access to explanatory context vs. Access to raw data

No user wants content that is:

  • Generic to the point of having no value
  • Detailed information/data without any context for application

Audience Based Navigation: A navigation structure for a website that divides content by audience type (i.e. Seniors, Immigrants, Scientists, health care professionals, etc.). Ironically, Audience based navigation often stands in opposition to user centered design. We have known for a while now that for the most part, audience based navigation is not the most effective means of structuring a website to help users achieve their desired tasks online. Users decide what content they want and do not want to be told who they are.

“Do Not Track List” Implications for Web Analytics

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s recently released report about consumer privacy at first glance makes web analysts like me shudder. It says, not surprisingly, that some companies appear to treat consumer information “in an irresponsible or even reckless manner” and “do not adequately address consumer privacy interests”. The gist is that unless government steps in to corral the unfettered encroachment on individual privacy, consumers may become the hapless victims of “physical security, economic injury, and unwanted intrusions into their daily lives.” Talk of a creating a “do not track” list to protect consumers is underway both in the U.S. and now in Canada.

Assessing the performance of a website without some quantitative gauge of what people are doing (or not doing) makes it nearly impossible to know if the web channel is meeting the needs of users and the goals of the organization. I worried that the FTC’s proposed framework for protecting consumers would greatly impact any analyst’s ability to use quantitative tools to measure web performance.

But the FTC does put some common sense into their framework by allowing data collection for what they term “commonly accepted practices.” These include the obvious, such as collecting the address for shipment of a purchased product, fraud prevention, first-party marketing (the site you’re visiting offers you free shipping) and happily, collection about visits and click-throughs to improve customer service.

Mind you, quantitative or clickstream tools are only part of the analyst’s arsenal. Real insight comes with a myriad of inputs about user behaviours, be they on-page surveys (“did you find what you were looking for today?”), testing of different calls to action, or other methods that marry the what with the why with respect to how users interact with a Web site.

I agree with the FTC’s assertion that organizations should be more transparent about their data practices, which at a minimum includes publishing plain language policies explaining how individual data is used. The same policy considerations are needed in Canada, allowing both for privacy of Canadians’ personal information as well as recognition that Web performance data helps government, non-profits and for-profit organizations reach their audiences more effectively and efficiently.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice.

Open Data in D.C.: From Potholes to Apps for Democracy

David Strigel is the Program Manager of the Citywide Data Warehouse at the District of Columbia Government. Citywide Data Warehouse is the first initiative in the US that makes virtually all current district government operational data available to the public in its raw form rather than in static, edited reports. David shared the challenges and successes with the project with Systemscope’s Denise Eisner following his presentation at GTEC.

David, at GTEC you described the effort involved in getting government data sets online. What was the biggest lesson from the early part of the project and what might you have done differently?

Start small and start now. Washington DC did not wait to plan out a 10-year program. We started with one dataset in one format and put it online as is. We started with a single dataset in a single format: it was service request data, including things like pot holes and trash pickup.

Looking back, what might you have done differently?

The District, as one of the first to open their data in such a large volume, had to create custom code to build their data catalogue and data connections. With open data initiatives becoming more of a priority in many jurisdictions, many companies have appeared on the market offering solutions that can help a government launch a program similar to the Citywide Data Warehouse.

We now state in many RFPs that projects must share the data so the vendor and project budget take this effort into account at the planning stages. Adding this language to RFPs from the start would have helped us move along faster.

Can you describe some of the interesting ways in which people are using the city’s data?

A resident has created an intricate website that uses the District’s data feeds to provide economic development information, including permit status and crime statistics. There’s also crime reports as I mentioned and another called everyblock.

The District’s Apps for Democracy contest challenged residents to utilize information available from DC’s Data Feeds to develop consumer-based applications. Local developers produced 47 applications that were conceived, developed, and delivered in 30 days. Winning applications include a DC biking guide, government purchases over $2,500, parking meter locations, community garden sites, and more.

Our clients here in Ottawa always face change management issues with major projects. What are the change management issues you encountered for the warehouse project and how did you mitigate them?

The most prominent organizational obstacle is that some individuals within government do not always welcome the idea of creating opportunities for the public to criticize government operations. There are select employees that worry that the public will misinterpret raw data or that the data owner will be unable to affect how the data is used after it resides in the centralized data warehouse. These employees often cite budget cuts, limited production capacity, insufficient technology resources, or other top priority projects as reasons not to participate in data democratization.

How did we convince people? It depends on the objection:

  • We have no money: If our program has the time, we can do the database work for the agency and create a read-only table in the customer’s database for CityDW’s use.
  • This will create opportunities for the public to criticize government operations: we are in a way opening ourselves to criticism but in some cases the public can help the government QA the data, find issues and help us fix those issues.
  • Limited production capacity: CityDW can connect and get updates in the middle of the night.
  • We don’t have a way to get you the data: CityDW has become very flexible as to how agencies can send and update data. We prefer an Oracle to Oracle connection but as with any government many different technologies are used across the city. In many cases agencies update a Excel report and send a CSV file on a scheduled basis; CityDW automatically ‘watches’ for the emails and updates the data in the data warehouse.

What are the financial realities for executing an open data strategy in government? How do you make a business case for embarking on open data initiatives in these economic times?

You don’t need a massive budget to get started. You can start an open data program with a part-time: project manager, developer and DBA and grow from there once you have users requesting more data. Governments and resident will both benefit with having a centralized location for the data… there will be second set of eyes on the data. Issues may be found in the data that will enable the government to save money or identify revenue sources.

What was the desired outcome for your open data strategy and program, and how have you been able to measure its success?

We wanted the residents to be able to take our data and visualize it or create applications that would benefit other residents and create new ways of looking at the data that we never considered. We wanted another set of eyes on our data, looking for issues that need to be corrected.

All our data is available via other applications, dashboards, tools, and reports. So in addition to tracking downloads we have to track usage and log-ins of the other applications and dashboards… for downloads in fiscal year 2010 we had almost 2 million downloads. We can also measure our success by the number of incoming requests for more data, dashboards, and reporting environments.

Do you have any suggestions as to how an open data initiative at the municipal level might be leveraged across all levels of government (city, state/provincial, federal)?

Washington DC is a unique situation in that we are a government that has to function as a state, city and county. Building a program that contains the central location for enterprise wide data creates many beneficiaries and not just the residents and press. Once of the most common uses of data are Districts employees. They may not know who in the government controls access to a particular dataset but they do know that the data is published at There are no forms to fill out; employees just like the residents can download agency data so they can do their job faster and more efficiently.

A centralized data warehouse allows you to expand beyond open government and data sharing. Once you have the data, reporting environments can be created and used inside the government. Business intelligence applications and dashboard can be built to help executives view the overall ‘health’ of their agency without having to drill down in to all of the data line by line.

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

A hallowed Eaves takes the scary out of open data at GTEC

A public policy entrepreneur, open government activist, negotiation expert and loquacious blogger, David Eaves champions the cause of open data in government. Systemscope’s Denise Eisner spoke to David after his well-received appearance at the GTEC conference in Ottawa.

David, one of the open data issues that emerged during the GTEC conference was the public sector concern regarding risk. Clearly the issue hit home as you blogged about it immediately! How would you advise federal departments trying to balance openness/transparency and risk management?

The only acceptable risk is if you think people are going to do something illegal. The policy infrastructure for dealing with people who do bad things already exists. This is not to say you shouldn’t have a communications strategy about your data. People may find missing or incorrect data, but that’s OK, you can fix that.

At GTEC, you issued an open challenge to the public sector audience to open their data. Why do you think open data in government has yet to take root?

The technology for sharing is relatively new and people in government are not used to sharing. But there’s a huge appetite among a cohort of public servants and they’re trying to get their institutions interested in sharing.

So what “low hanging fruit” should government departments be thinking about when deciding which data sets to make available first?

I would find all the data sets we already share with the public and consolidate them to a single portal. It is going to cost money and it will require people, something like a swat team to make data sets ready. Sometimes you have data trapped in proprietary structures and you need to get that into a format that’s usable for the world. Edit your procurement so that any new system you buy has an open data component to it. You have to reshape the vendor market.

The return on investment for open data is not just transparency: it’s an efficiency ROI.

You started an open data Web site, ostensibly to fill a void for accessible government open data. What have you learned from that process?

The thing that surprised me the most was how far some government departments have come in sharing in their data, particularly Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada. As of today there are about 200 sets available.

Why not wait for government to finish their data portal project?

What makes the digital era so exciting is that we don’t have to wait for government to act: we can do it on our own. The site creates a safe place where we can model the behaviour we want government to display and then have them copy us. That would be the goal.

Did anything surprise you during your recent visit at GTEC?

In Canada, we’re late to the game. What makes the conversation around open data different in DC or Vancouver, is that in those places the conversation is around how we’ve come this far, and how do we keep going. In Ottawa it’s still a question of how we get past that first hump. I don’t know exactly what’s causing this, other than big projects across ministries are always incredibly difficult. A notable difference between the UK and Canada is political leadership. Open data and transparency is a real priority in England. On day one of the new conservative administration, the UK’s prime minister announced he would release more data than the previous administration.

You sound hopeful.

It’s not a huge onerous task. I think that other countries have been able to do it. They have been able to move forward. In most cases government has the data and it is extractable. There may a cost to making it ready. But it’s not a hard issue. What’s hard is shifting the culture.

There are a lot of great people doing this work and we need to support them. One group that I’ve been working with and is pushing forward is Parliament. They’re developing an XML feed to the Hansard with a launch planned for January. This is an important and huge step forward.

I’m hopeful that the incentives are in place to do open data here in Canada. There are potentially significant savings for government through efficiencies, better vendor agreements and more.

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