Taxonomy is against human nature

I’ve mentioned “From Chaos to Control”, PC Magazine’s feature on Content Management before, but wanted to revisit it.

I’ve been thinking about the presentation I have to do later this month for Ian Dunmore at the Public Sector Forums. I haven’t got very far as I’ve also been working on slides for a conference this week, but some thoughts have been working their way through my tiny mind.

Some government websites are enormous. Fifty-seventy thousand pages is not uncommon in the big departments; 100s of sub-websites, some of which are not connected to any other part of the main site; layers and layers of content, sometimes 7,8,9 layers; many different look and feels, perhaps 4 or 5 in a single site. And, of course (my main beef), a structure that maps fine to the department but not at all to the citizen. So given a problem like that to solve, departments draw up a list of requirements for their content management system (because they’ve heard that’s what they need) and they go off and buy one. Now I’ve said before, that you don’t buy content management solutions (I can’t convince anyone of that though, everyone wants to buy one so that they can “tick the box”).

The requirements are quite bizarre in many cases – everyone wants a discussion forum so that they can tick the “online consultation” box, most people want a few interactive calculators, a few more want to be able to sell things online (documents, publications and whatnot). And then, somewhere near the end of the list, comes the real drop-dead dumb requirement. It will usually be couched in neutral words, something like, “we want to be able to make changes to the site structure” or maybe “we’d like to be able to change the site easily”. If you explore this, it means that the web masters of old, the ones who got us where we are today, want to be able to play. They want to be able to add whole sections to the site, change the navigation (within the site), change the colour scheme, add new content templates and so on. In other words, having got their hands on a solution that imposes some discipline, they want to get rid of the “controlled situation” and return to chaos. I argue with people about this a lot. I say, “tell me what you want to be able to change”. Often the response is “style sheets”. Those are easy to change of course, but what control do you put over them – who do you allow to tinker with the brand? What happens if they make a mistake and change the text to white, but on a white background? If you give people the right to add pages, then they must have the right to delete – what happens when someone deletes the home page? How do you trap for errors? How do you stop people taking what you’ve painstakingly designed and making a mess of it? If you’re designing around the citizen, the careful thought you put in up front, the weeks you spend on designing the information architecture, the days you spent implementing it, crafting the navigation so that it makes sense are then all laid to waste because too many people have the rights to change what you’ve done.

It will take an enormous amount of effort to take 50,000 pages of static HTML oriented around the department and reorient it so that it makes sense to the citizen. Adding in discussions, transactions, alerts and notifications in an accessible way will take yet more effort. Before you go off and buy a content management package, think about what it is you really need, complete the design work that shows where you want to be, look around for who has already gone through what you’re about to and learn from them.

Otherwise, in a year from now, we’ll be right back where we started. In a dead end.

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