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How hard is it to do a proper sitemap?

24 Mar

A Government friend of mine sent me this link quite a while back.

It is a sitemap for a WA Government agency, the Department for Child Protection, who’s site at the time was still a real mess since some machinery of government changes made it into a new department (the homepage at the root of their domain should give this fact away).

Anyway, back to the sitemap.

Best practice

For best practice on sitemaps, we once again call on Jacob Nielsen, who’s advice issued in 2008 has not changed from his original advice on the topic in 2002:

The two main usability guidelines for site maps are:

  • Call it "Site Map" and use this label to consistently link to the site map throughout the site.
  • Use a static design. Don’t offer users interactive site map widgets. The site map should give users a quick visualization without requiring further interaction (except scrolling, if necessary).

Ok, let’s give credit where its due. The Child Protection sitemap passes these two basic criteria with flying colours… or does it?

If you look at the code used to generate the map, you’ll see the following:
About DCP
Organisation
Minister
Minister
Office Of The Director General
Office of the Director General

Analysing this code in detail, you’ll see that the information isn’t structured as an unordered list. To create the indents and show visually there is some form of hierarchy to the information, they have simply added spaces to the left of each line item.

While this method of display would be great for those blessed with the gift of site, it simply doesn’t work for those who can’t see and rely on assistive technologies to browse websites (screen readers, et al).

What do the state standards say

The Website Standards: Common Website Elements document describes the set of common website elements that are required for a consistent layout on all WA Government websites. However, this does not lay down and hard and fast standards as to how sitemaps are to be presented.

So, let’s go to the Guidelines for State Government websites:

4.4.2 Recommendations for Western Australian Websites

  • It is recommended that Western Australia government websites are at the very least Priority 1 accessible
  • It is recommended that Western Australia government websites should meet Priority 2
  • Priority 3 improves access to web documents for all user groups and is the optimum strategy for Western Australia government websites.

W3C accessibility guidelines must be applied when developing a new website. For information on Priority 1, Priority 2 and Priority 3 elements refer to W3C’s List of Checkpoints for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

If utilising commercial developers, it is advisable to ensure Priority 3 or Priority 2 are included as well as Priority 1 as a requirement in any tenders or contracts.

However, for existing websites, a business case should be undertaken to evaluate the cost of repair versus the cost of re-building to reach compliance.

Ok, that’s a lot of text. In summary, you should meet priority 1 as a bare minimum, and be aiming for priority 2.

A couple of basic tests give this a pass on Priority 1, so they scrape by.

But should they scrape by?

My opinion, no. What’s been done here is a really dodgy sitemap, which for a sighted person is hard to read, and is impossible for a non-sighted person to make sense of its structure.

You’ll see in Nielsen’s 2008 study, they looked at the sitemaps of multiple entities

Now while the 2008 study (associated report, now available for free download) found that sitemaps were rarely used, with only 7% of users in the test group turning to them, Nielsen argues (and I agree) that “they’re the only feature that gives users a true overview of everything on a site.”

Nielsen continues:

A site map lets users see all available content areas on one page, and gives them instant access to those site pages. Site maps can also help users find information on a cluttered site, providing a clean, simple view of the user interface and the available content. Site maps are not a cure-all, however. No site map can fix problems inherent in a site’s structure, such as poor navigational organization, poorly named sections, or poorly coordinated subsites.

There’s also aspects of sitemaps that have importance around search engine optimisation outcomes, but that’s a whole other topic best left for another time.

Looking at government web analytics

25 Nov

Well, I had a very productive day in Canberra yesterday, having gone over for an event run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Web Analytics in Government. It was a full house, with even resident federal parliamentary tech evangelist Sen. Kate Lundy having to be turned down.

One of my favourite ways to take notes at these sessions is using mindmaps, with XMind being my tool of choice. I’ve not had a chance to do a unified map to link up the various speaker themes as yet, but there was quite a number of common themes across the spectrum. Speakers covered areas including how we’re doing it, highlighting the value analytics provides to government communication, and how much further things have to go to help agencies and stakeholders understand the value of communicating via the web.

Sadly, I needed to leave before the panel discussion commenced otherwise I would have missed my flight home. Reading Craig Thomler‘s (author of the eGov AU blog) twitter posts for the panel session, the discussion focused around if the needs of commercial and government analytics are any different. The panel of experts assembled, including Rod Jacka, Hurol Inan and others was split on the question with two either way.

So you can get an idea of what was discussed at the sessions, here’s my mindmaps from the day. They should provide you some good food for thought on the topics discussed and prod you into action. If you want the full XMind map files to reuse them, please drop me a line.

Apologies for the gallery below not providing the best way to lay these out, just trying to get them up as quickly as possible so they can be of use to people.

Is information held by the Government a national resource?

30 Mar

There’s been much discussion in the last few days over proposed changes to Australia’s freedom of information laws.

As part of its policy platform announced at the 2007 Federal election, it committed to reforming the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) with the principal objects of promoting a pro-disclosure culture across the Government and building a stronger foundation for more openness in government.

While these reforms won’t have much of an impact at state Government levels (yet), I am in two minds over the following statement made by Senator the Hon Robert Faulkner in a companion guide to the reforms:

Information held by the Government is a national resource and should be managed in the public interest. Access to government information increases public participation, and leads to increased scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of government activity.

The upsides of improved access to information

I am all for the intent of the statement, and there’s been several examples where access to government information has enhanced the ability of citizens to access services and information. One example which springs to mind is the iTT Perth application built for the iPhone platform. Thanks to the Public Transport Authority (PTA) releasing their timetable information in an open format, it has enabled developers to repurpose and reuse this data for the benefit of all.

In the case of the iTT Perth application, the developer has taken the data, ported it to a handheld platform, and added a useful interface over the top to enable easy access to timetable information. The application also leverages the iPhone’s GPS capabilities so instead of having to be at a physical stop to capture the stop number and look it up, it will automatically find the nearest stop and give you the information you need.

Such an application wouldn’t have been possible if the PTA didn’t make it publicly and freely available, and by doing so it has created an environment where innovation can prosper and enable consumer-driven service improvements to be delivered. It showed that consumers who love a specific brand are prepared and will often show their devotion and loyalty to it by enhancing what it does or embracing its value in their own special way – a concept called Lovemarks, which was first put to paper by Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of the global marketing and communications giant Saatchi & Saatchi. Lovemarks has taken on a life of it’s own that the company now refers to itself as ‘the lovemarks company’.

Just the way I’m referring to Lovemarks and Saatchi & Saatchi should give you an idea of just how much I respect that brand and what Lovemarks is all about.

Failing to allow your users to participate and utilise your data can have pretty negative consequences. The most recent and highest publicity failure in this area centered around New South Wales rail provider CityRail threatening legal action against the man who developed the Transit Sydney application. CityRail’s stance was totally against innovation and invention in this field, and it promoted the direct and personal intervention of Premier Nathan Rees to resolve the issue – and it wasn’t any surprise that Rees sides with the application’s developer.

Where could it all go wrong if not done properly?

So those are the positives of innovation, but you might ask where are the negatives of which I referred to.

My role is within an agency who’s primary source of funding comes from it’s day to day business, selling and managing timber assets for profit. Our sole shareholder, the People of Western Australia through the Government of the day. We don’t receive funds from consolidated revenue or taxation, our business and quality of product determines if we survive or fold, and in turn deliver a profit or loss for the people. Thankfully, we’ve returned a profit in nearly every year of operation since establishment, and thankfully our profit goes beyond dollars, but also returns and benefits in social and environmental outcomes – the triple bottom line.

As part of doing business, we have to constantly innovate and and find ways of delivering a better product for both now and in the future. While our innovation is managed and takes place in the public interest, any such changes to FOI legislation must protect both my employer and similar agencies/instrumentalities across Australia who’s innovation takes place in the public interest.

If the changes to these laws are not handled correctly, there is a risk that the work being done for the benefit of all could fall into the hands of some, taking away what benefits could be derrived for everyone and not just a small group of shareholders who’s core focus is on returning a nice dividend check at the end of the year to pay for a summer house and nanny.

How do your customers feel about dealing with government?

29 Mar

Leave it to The Onion to make something this good:

Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport

Is this how your customers feel about dealing with government?

An expeirment in Twitter

27 Mar

One of the easiest things an agency can do is communicate using the tools and sites their customers and target audiences are already using. So it was a no-brainer for me eariler this week, when at midnight and still awake under the influence of cold and flu medication I decided it was time for my agency to ‘tweet’.

Why tweet you ask?

It wasn’t exactly a question I asked myself when I made the decision to go for it. Looking back on it, there are a few good reasons to do it.

1. How long before the twitter username your agency might want is already taken?

At the rate things are going, not very long. The name I wanted when setting up an account for our agency was already taken by the Florida Progressive Coalition. I had to think for a few minutes before I finally came up with something short, suitable and memorable.

Already there’s cases where imposters are taking people’s names on twitter, famous for being famous Kim Kardashian being one, Australian Security Intellegance Organisation being another, a fake account for federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy – the operator recently being outed as an employee of communications company Telstra and contends he lost his job as a result of the harmless fun.

And while fakes may be the order of the day with the username you already want, there are some which are useful. An example of this is the Transperth Bot, which collates all the posts on twitter relating to Transperth, the brand for metropolitan public transportation operated by the Public Transport Authority. Granted it’s not Transperth and it is doing something useful – but what if the Public Transport Authority wants an official twitter service to quickly communicate with its customers?

While writing this post, I came across an article from The Next Web, which is a brief how-to for recovering the twitter username you wanted. But the question is when your Agency CEO/CTO or Marketing/Communications Manager comes to you asking to setup an official twitter service – would you rather have something ready to go for them and keep up the reputation of being an miricle worker, or spend a few days in the muck and mire because you’re trying to get that username you really want. It’s exactly what I advised a counterpart earlier this week when in the process of researching what other agencies are up to in this space, and he’s prepared for when his agency wants to go down that path.

2. Your customers are already using it

This requires no further explanation. If you customers are already using the service, why not communicate with them using these channels, reducing your cost of interaction and getting information to them quicker instead of them having to hunt it down and find it.

A good example of this is Tourism Western Australia, who’s twitter account I found while searching for agencies in my area who were already using it. They are the only once I’ve found thus far, and on a one-way communications method they are using it well to notify people of travel deals and offers available from their tourist portal, westernaustralia.net.

Sure, information regarding the discounts, offers and events of interest is already available from the website – but your customers will only find it if they are specifically visiting the website or looking for that information. Twitter is allowing them to push this information out to interested people, and the results are showing having acheived 562 followers in a space of two months.

3. Highlight hidden web content

Most agencies have pretty large websites, and information regarding updates or new content doesn’t always make it to the main page. Sure, you can have a RSS feed or list of recent changes – but why not write something short about the content and push a link to it out on a twitter feed. Takes about 15 seconds to do, and using a hash tag allows you to mark the content so people searching for that information on twitter can find it quickly.

4. Additional communications channel

One of the features of twitter is being able to send @replies and direct messages to communicate amongst twitter users. Once your twittering becomes well established, users will use these to engage with you and get responses to issues and questions.

If your users start to use with them, make sure you engage and engage quickly. Its a good idea to use a toolkit such as Tweetdeck to monitor these and ensure you reply promptly.

Just remember, be careful when it comes to privacy and confidentiality issues. While you can use the service to give basic information or refer people to the right area, don’t provide services, details or support which is normally reserved for once someone’s identity has been confirmed. If it looks like the users problem is diverting into that area, send them a direct message asking for their contact details so you can refer their enquiry onto a specialist for a direct response.

There are some good examples of how companies have used twitter to augment their service, support and enquiry channels to their advantage and benefit, a great example being much derided US internet service provider Comcast. Used smartly and wisely, twitter can become a powerful tool to respond to the needs of unhappy customers, or just demonstrating that their are real people who care working for your agency.

5. It’s easy

It doesn’t take much to get setup and start using twitter – as long as your agencies’ IT group doesn’t block access to it. If they do, it shouldn’t be hard to get them to remove the block citing your social media strategy, or at the very least get a privilege escalation so you can access and use the site to communicate for your agency.

Anyway, that’s a quick summary of the reasons of why I’ve gone down the twitter road. I’ll be seeing how this little expeirment goes over the next few months and I’ll keep you posted on the results.