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.


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