Is text only still relevant?

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This isn’t going to be a long post, as I don’t really have any answers…just a series of questions and assumptions…

My question is how relevant is a Text Only version of a website?

There maybe an obvious answer to this – Is this simply an admission that your website by default isn’t actually usable and accessible?

I’ve been thinking and chatting to my team about content strategy, user experience,  HTML 5 and responsive design and how this will change the way we think and design websites from the ground up…It is all very exciting but we also need to think the now, how do we build stuff today and what should we be including.

In Devon, our current corporate website has a text only version and if I’m honest I think it is a pretty poor presentation of the content and fails to really offer any advantage…and if we have simply designed a usable and accessible site all along we probably wouldn’t think about text only…

Our stats show that the text only version isn’t used much, if at all on most days…so this brings me back to the question…How relevant is Text Only?

Devon’s Content Strategy

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In previous posts I’ve talked about developing a content strategy for the council and shared my thoughts on what it might include, i’ve shared an example of how its already informing our development as well as sharing my thinking on the kind of support I believe web teams and local government in general need to improve the overall quality of our web estate.

There is a huge amount of work to be done moving forward and my team have essentially been delivering against this strategy already since last summer, as we have been reviewing and auditing our content.

The key point to outline is that in terms of how our web estate will actually look in 4-5 years time, we broadly see an Amazon style site emerging where our web domain acts as a trusted access point over a hybrid marketplace of services, some provided directly by us, some provided by voluntary / private sector and some provided by partnerships.

The content strategy’s primary purpose is to outline an approach and shift the current thinking around how we design, develop and manage our web estate.

I’m not going to republish the whole thing here as it is quite long, so I’ll include a few bits and pieces from the 4 year strategy and if you want to see the full version then please get in touch and I can email you a copy along with a Powerpoint presentation which helps to explain and illustrate it further.

There are 3 documents in total – in my view the background makes excellent bedtime reading when I struggle sleeping :)

  • A 4 year Strategy
  • A 2 year roadmap
  • Background information
The following is a short summary of the strategy document.

Vision

The content strategy aims to fundamentally change the way we think about our web presence, to reposition the user at the forefront of how and why we create content and services. It intends to exploit the social web and social networks to ensure our content reaches its intended audience.

The main aim is to ensure that users can access content where they need it and not have to rely on accessing and navigating their way through a council website to find critical or timely information and services.

If the strategy is successful then we will have a hybrid web presence with content being managed once and reused and shared where appropriate. A large proportion of our content will reside in social platforms and social networks directly targeting the primary audience, for example all of our content for parents should also be available directly via Mumsnet (if practical), or aspects of our content for people from different cultures in Devon should be directly available via Devon Grapevine.

However we would also have a strong and clearly branded presence providing core information which would act as a central hub. In maintaining a single domain this ensures that our content is accessible and findable via google which is essentially the majority of users starting point on the web.

Our vision statement:

“We will have a public facing web domain that reflects and supports the diversity and agility of the organisation, reaches out and extends our presence across the web whilst providing a framework for consistency, accountability and quality around the content we provide”.

The Strategy

The content strategy is also an enabler for a number of other county council strategies for example:

  • Access Strategy
    By providing a usable online web presence that is driven by the needs of users and provides access to a range of online services to support cost savings through the migration of users from more expensive channels of access to online.
  • Engagement Strategy
    By connecting people to content and information about council services, decisions, plans etc and providing opportunities and channels to provide feedback or have a discussion directly online.
  • Information Strategy
    By ensuring that our content is reusable, sharable, open and linked by default.
  • Communications Strategy
    By providing a key purpose for all content, and supporting the key themes and messages in line with the Communications Strategy.

This strategy aims to provide specific, well-informed recommendations about how we’re going to get from where we are today – bad content and too much content – to where we want to be – useful, usable content people will actually care about and in places that make sense to them.

Our Approach

To ensure the delivery of the strategy, we need to think differently and adopt a set of approaches which will provide the foundations for success – these are explained in further detail below.

Standards Driven – (a global experience language)

Our web domain will be an ecosystem or network of solutions all governed by a set of rules (a global experience language, or GEL ) so they look, talk and behave like part of the core and are also searchable and indexed from a single (federated) search facility.

The GEL itself will be developed using feedback and evidence around the use of our web domain and will be constantly reviewed and updated to ensure that it stays current and in line with significant changes in web delivery.

Taking the GEL further it will include standards such as:-

  • Content Standards and Lifecycle Management
  • Online Feedback
  • Web Publishing and Editorial Policy (including Plain English)
  • Accessibility (including EU Cookie Directive)

User Driven (evidence based)

Using web-based analytics is essentially about looking at how your website is being used. It gives you a feel for how many visits your site gets over a given time period, how many of these visits are unique, what the most popular pages are, as well as a whole range of other information.
In order to measure and evaluate our content effectively we need to adopt a blended approach which uses traditional web analytics along with additional sources of information/data. These would include

  • Heuristic Evaluations (end users and staff)
  • Data from Customer Service Centre
  • Data from Freedom of Information requests
  • Web Analytics
  • Feedback and complaints
  • Profiling and Content Engagement
  • Online Surveys

A Procurement and Commissioning Framework – (working with others)

It is important to acknowledge that the council will not be able to deliver and implement the content strategy in isolation or alone. In order to achieve the aims of the content strategy we need to ensure that the GEL is consistently applied whenever county council content is being presented online whether via a website, mobile phone app, digital TV service etc.

Development through iteration (agile and response)

The content strategy requires a new way of thinking about our domain and website and for these reasons we should adopt a more agile approach to development. The main reason for this is that the web is a dynamic, constantly changing environment and subsequently drove a large number of our “microsites” to be developed outside of our corporately provided systems.

A refreshed Web Architecture – (future proofing)

The content strategy also plays a key role in shaping and informing the web architecture as part of the ICT Corporate Business and Solution Strategy as well as the emerging Application Strategy.

#UKGC12 – Content Strategy WTF!

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A long overdue post…and I suspect it won’t add a great deal to this excellent summary by Sarah Lay, who co-hosted the session with me but I’ll share my perspective nonetheless.

The whole idea of the session came about because of Sarah and myself chatting and constructively challenging each other over what is and isn’t content strategy in local government.

We sort of agreed that it was an emerging area but most (we believed) was already happening in other councils. Some explicit in their approach (Liverpool) and other less so…so may not have even written any of this stuff down before…

So the Friday session was all about (from my point of view) asking and proposing what people thought Content Strategy was all about and why it was very different to traditional web strategies…

My thoughts on the session itself were that it felt like being the odd one out for a large part of the session…explaining that the previous 10 years of eGovernment had basically caused us to think in the wrong way about our websites and that in large parts Better Connected hasn’t really forced us to think differently either…I’m not going to get into a debate here about the merits or not of eGovernment or Better Connected…they served and still serve a purpose…

I captured some additional thoughts about content strategy on a previous post here, but include the specific comments about content strategy below:

Content strategy is a game changer – changing the thinking built up over the las 10 years since the start of the egovernment agenda – this triggered the anti-user approach in developing websites in my humble opinion…it essentially turned sites that were aimed at users into mediocre corporately assimilated content waste lands…lacking in any meaning as to how to build and manager a community and help move aspects of communications and service interaction into more efficient channels…but that is the past…we can learn from it, but we must first recognise the mistakes we made…not everyone made them but most did…this is all just my opinion of course but localgov as a community needs to think about how it develops its online and digital offering better – perhaps in a similar reboot approach taken by the GDS…it does not matter what you call it…but it does need to think about some key principles, for example one might be.. getting content to people and not people to websites…this then provides the drivers for your content in social spaces as opposed to having a specific focus on social media….this does not mean you shouldn’t develop specific channel standards, in fact this reinforces the need for standards within channels…but based on managing your content flow in it and how you might monitor or measure it.

Moving on….

The more we spoke the more I guess we sounded a bit like a local council version of the government digital service…and this was reinforced when hearing Mike Bracken and his presentation on the Government Digital Service which directly followed our session in the main auditorium…much of what he said was resonating with me and whether or not others thought the same but for me at least i actually felt like i shared the ambitions of central government when it comes to web…this is the first time since i started in local gov web back in 2003…so a major break through in my opinion.

The big challenge is accepting that we can’t all create the same content strategy, but we accepted that we could all contribute to some form of framework or an understanding as to what the core components are….An idea for a saturday “doing session”…

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Taken by iamadonut at UKGC12

The saturday session for me was not exactly what I had hoped for…this was mainly down to the fact that I had naively assumed that the people who were engaged and committed to helping on friday were in fact not there on the saturday…But that didn’t mean the session didn’t prove valuable nonetheless.

Ok, so we didn’t create a framework, we didn’t get to a comprehensive list of components…but what we did get to was as Sarah refers to her summary was that we should create a “Content Strategy Community”.

So yes, we are planning on pulling together a space for a community to come together…we are currently looking at a set of tools and how these might fit together to best suit the needs of a community as well as more formal and sustainable place for it to be hosted.

If you are in local government and work in and around digital content (web managers very much included here) then please leave a comment below or on sarah’s blog or just DM your contact details via twitter to either of us and we’d love for you to get involved…

Further developing the Content Strategy

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It has been a fascinating process developing the councils first content strategy, the personal learning and development which I’ve had to do as well as helping others understand the benefits of what we are calling a content strategy has also been an interesting and rewarding challenge.

In an email conversation with Sarah Lay (my unofficial content strategy peer review person) we touched on the issue of whether the content strategy I am creating is actually what the content strategy community would recognise as one…we both agreed and concluded that it didn’t really matter, as long as it did the job!

We touched on the fact that in #localgov we are really getting to a point where a group of disciplines are coming together and depending on your organisation it is likely to approach it slightly differently.

The types of things the content strategy is informing, linking to and dependant on are (in no particular order):

  • Communications strategy
  • Engagement Strategy
  • ICT Strategy
  • Information Strategy
  • Access Strategy

It has replaced a traditional web strategy altogether in my mind as we recognise that the “web” as a platform is essentially how we will manage our ICT infrastructure.

So unpicking the old web strategy further, a new strategy which is the responsibility of my ICT colleagues is an Application Strategy – this is essentially the strategy that informs our delivery of online services.

In my informal consultation on the draft content strategy, it has become clear that:

a) everyone agreed with the spirit of the document but it relied on conversation and explanation to answer people’s questions as they weren’t found in the document < but this is what the process was intended to tease out.

b) I didn't clearly articulate the strategic direction and focused too much on the 2 year roadmap < people were actually more engaged in where we are going than I had anticipated.

c) people didn't understand some aspects of what it is being proposed and the full extent of how we would apply a global experience language < My view is that it will be a complete rule book covering our web domain and not just the visual design of it, it will also form a critical and core part of a future procurement and commissioning framework for web/digital stuff.

One of the benefits of developing a content strategy is that I don't feel we need a social media strategy now. If we get the content strategy correct then our use of social media platforms to increase the engagement and interaction with our content will naturally increase…this does not mean that our use of social media will simply go crazy…but more than we will focus on the needs of the content, where the audience is and how we connect our content with the audience…the logical conclusion is that it won't be on our website but in social spaces.

And it is this strategic direction which people are really supportive of and are really engaged with…I've got one more week of informal consultations then a period of refinement and amendments on my document (which I've already started) then the content strategy will be ready for formal sign off internally by our corporate leadership team (gulp).

The next few weeks are going to be interesting.

Remembering to reflect on your own journey

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Last week I had a telephone conversation with Liz Azyan about the progress that Devon has made around social media etc since we spoke last on this topic late 2009.

One of the great things conversations like that do is make your reflect on how far you and your organisation has come in that time.

One thing I haven’t been doing very well lately is looking back through my own blog and seeing how my thinking has evolved, how ideas developed and changed as well as how my approach has changed…This is actually very empowering and liberating to see first hand that I have made progress individually, my thinking in some areas has come to light and made practical difference to people working for the council.

It also shows me where I have left behind some ideas in favour of news ones, but I haven’t clearly articulated to myself that I’ve changed direction and that is something I find important as my mind is full of “stuff” and I need to make practical steps to make sense of that in ways that not only I can understand but others.

I thought I’d take a look at my blogs footprint through a wordle and get a sense of the topics I blog about using my blogs RSS feed. (

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When I looked back at the content I posted on my blog during January of 2010 – a whole 2 years ago now – I was in a different mindset, a different world almost…I was in fact in a completely different job, one focused more on strategy first than practical application….whereas now I have to think about both of those in equal measure.

I blogged a total of five times and the majority were about risk and governance and of course there was the now compulsory UKGovCamp blog post (January is the UKGovCamp Rock Fest Month)

However one post, which was more of a link to previous thinking and external blogging content was the Facebookisation of the Enterprise post – essentially suggesting and proposing what could happen if the IT department behaved more like facebook and created a platform for stuff to be built upon.

I’ve taken aspects of the thinking around that and have taken this into the Content Strategy I am writing.  It is interesting to see how little ideas last and evolve into other aspects of my thinking.

So in looking at all of this, I’ve decided to be more reflective overall and to first look back at my own thinking before I write something on the blog, or use that challenge of my own thinking as the basis of a blog post itself.

Do you reflect on your own blog posts? How has your thinking evolved over the months and years you’ve been blogging?