Value? what value?

Interesting piece on the register noting that “some research or other” found that 65% of 500 businesses had no idea whether the money spent on their website was good value or not. Research is, as the Tim infers, only as good as the questions, the underlying agenda and the researcher, but gut feel says that this is probably right. At a session over breakfast yesterday, one of the attendees was talking about the need to put a credit in the accounts for everyone that used the website (the more they do, the higher the credit I guess). So, someone who checks the company address maybe credits a virtual 25p to the website coffer (offsetting the expense of build in a sort of double-entry manner), if they go through the FAQs and don’t call the help desk, maybe they credit more. Seems to make sense to me- and it wouldn’t be hard to come up with some simple metrics that allowed you to figure out what was going on.

Ian Dunmore, over at Public Sector Forums, has cottoned onto this notion of “value” in the past as well as more recently. You’ll need to register and answer a few nearly-onerous questions (as Ian said to me, this stuff has to pay for itself so you give some “value” to him and in return, he gives some value back – seems a fair trade).

Agh …

I know that government gets a lot of stick for its web presence. Some of that stick is even deserved: too fragmented, hard to find things, not enough transactions – that kind of thing. But, we’re not doing too badly versus the private sector. Here are some examples of plain, downright awful, stupid design from today alone:

– The famous, internationally renowned bank that keeps issuing an error saying “check amount” (and nothing more) when I’m trying to transfer money between two accounts. Thinking this must be some kind of amount limit, I tried all kinds of different numbers. None worked. Do you know what it was? You had (HAD!) to type the pence field in – even though it wasn’t separate. So, “£1000” wouldn’t work. But “£1000.32” would. How maddening is that?

– The estate agent (many are guilty of this) that let you search by property value, post code or whatever. But they won’t let you search by property name. So many new developments are coming up with their own name these days (viz Monte Vetro, Imperial Wharf, Butlers Wharf etc) that I just want to be able to see if they have any from those names. Can I do that? No.

– The well known Money Management programme that has released a new version in which everything has changed. One incoming funds transfer was, for goodness knows what reason, labelled “Funds Transfer from Katja” (definitely not any Katja I know – she would not be sending money). From then on, every single funds transfer has the same label. What’s that all about?

So, a frustrating day at the hands of the Internet. Someone, somewhere, has forgotten to use these services themselves before foisting them on the unwitting public. Carry this on and the only brands that work will be the ones that do it well: Amazon, errr … Amazon? Who else?

All hail Gerry McGovern

Gerry, I don’t know who you are or what brought you to your conclusions (on content management software), but I love what you have to say …

1. Get real. New software will only solve a small part of your content problem. If you want great content you need great people far more than great software.

2. Put an editor in charge of the purchasing decision. By and large, IT managers don’t understand content. Nor do marketing executives.

3. Spend the time to properly specify what you need. What is it about so many organizations that they never seem to have the time to do things right?

4. Get away from the kitchen sink specification. Specify what you need, not what you want. Yes, we’d all love these fancy extra features. But the more features, the more costly to install, and the more complex to operate.

5. Stop thinking you’re so special. Standardized solutions can deliver a much faster, cheaper result, that is much more satisfactory to the reader

And so say all of us. Amen.

Actually, I do know who you are now that I’ve read the “about” section on your website. Sounds like a man who should know best.

BBC news redesign

Read this. If you have anything to do with your organisation’s website, read it. It’s an “Online Journalism Review” story telling how BBC news, a site with 2 million unique visitors and 10 million page views a day planned out its redesign, e.g.

Why didn’t the BBC use all the white space on the side of the screen? Why was the site ‘all squashed up’? Some found BBC News Online ‘cluttered and confusing’. It required too much scrolling and took too long to download. And it was less appealing to medium and light news users.

The accepted wisdom was that multi- media consumption was the engine that drove much site traffic to News Online. BBC News Online, after all, had an almost unrivalled access to timely, good quality audio and video. But the stats showed that much of the online multi-media was being ignored.

When a user approaches an object such as light switch or a control panel on a car, they form a mental model and anticipate what that object will do. It’s fair to say that, until now, our site hasn’t offered enough of these clues. It hasn’t given an instant system model to the user. In part, it has been a mess, to be honest

The use of generic code allows content to be supported and upgraded across different sites and in different languages with far less effort

Pages will be constructed from modules, allowing greater freedom than a traditional template.

The weight of the home page has been cut from around 160 K to 100 K

The individual journalist will have more responsibility for producing the whole package, including bespoke multi-media and interaction opportunities for the user

Great stuff. A lot of the same thinking that we have put into DotP. Great to see one of the most popular sites in the world though thinking about what it needs to do to improve, rather than resting on its laurels (and no, I’m not going to get into the debate about licence payer money and what should be done with it).

Matrix

I got some stick for my post about liking Cameron’s new Imax film on the Titanic. Something about being the only person on the planet who did like it. Well, I saw the new Matrix on Wednesday night and loved it. So, think twice before you go and see it.

More on swiss army knives

My P800 mobile phone is a bit of a swiss army knife. I wouldn’t move to any other phone on the market right now, but that’s not to say that it’s perfect. In the good old days, when I had a mobile phone and an Ipaq (or even a Palm) … anyone wanting to book a meeting would call me and, whilst I was on the phone, I’d power up the Ipaq and check my diary, entering the appointment in the right place. Likewise, if someone left a number on my voice mail and I needed to jot it down, I could do it all on the Ipaq. Now, with everything integrated, I can’t do that. I have to say “hold on”, open up the calendar app, look at my diary, hold the phone back up to my ear and repeat until we find a date that matches. Now I know that some of that would go away with an earpiece, but have you honestly tried to keep your earpiece in whilst doing everything else you’re supposed to do during the day?

Greg Papadopoulos, a senior guy at Sun, says this way better than me … here are 3 key points he made at a recent conference:

The first is the law (formulated by Gingell) that networks continuously morph logical structure through a process of decomposition, distribution, specialization and re-integration.

The second is a basic observation that all consumer-facing technologies become fashion.

And the third is a qualitative extrapolation of the physics of computation (Feynman, Landauer, Wheeler) to a world where atoms and bits become more intricated over time, leading to the concepts of “infra-destructuring” and “bitmass.”

What he means is that we’ve integrated all the components now because we have to – the services and technologies we’ve got today aren’t ready for a distributed, wireless accessible calendar for instance. But pretty soon, we’re going to smash that model apart and distribute the components again – so the camera in the P800 will be part of my sunglasses, the phone will be on my belt, the phone directory will be in the ether (so it’s accessible from any device I’ve got) and the pad that accesses it all will be a wafer thin screen that sits in my top pocket. Everything will communiate with everything else because (i) it can, (ii) it’s not expensive anymore and (iii) because people will demand it.

Profound words.

There ain’t no IT swiss army knives

A colleague from another part of government asked me to comment on the feasibility of two points yesterday. Both excellent questions and very topical in government today.

a. Expanding CMS functionality to bring in Electronic Records Management functionality.
b. Publishing content to Intranet and Internet using the same CMS.

Here’s what I answered:

My sense on both (a) and (b) is that there is big risk in trying to do too much with any one tool. if you try and add numbers up in word, for instance, you quickly see that excel is a much better tool for it. Likewise, writing text in excel is pretty painful. tools are usually most effective when they do one thing really well – few people carry swiss army knives around – because you never know what the thing that takes a stone out of a horse’s hoof is for and the screwdriver thing almost certainly doesn’t fit the screw that you need to undo etc.

And IT tools are certainly not swiss army knives. They barely do one thing well without a lot of hard work.

So … for instance …

Your internet presence is focused around the citizen. its navigation, search, look and feel are all designed around themes that make sense to the customer and where everything is accessible.

Your intranet is designed around what makes sense to your staff and the processes that they need to follow. it has a different information architecture and whilst staff should certainly (i think) be able to see exactly what the customer sees, they also need to see more – expenses forms, hr policies, access to internal data and so on. On top of that intranets need more security – I should not be able to see your pay if you are my boss, but you might be able to see mine for instance.

Ditto with records management. Content for the web is written in bite-sized chunks with occasional documents attached. if you want things to be accessible, you don’t do too many big files or pdfs, you certainly don’t add spreadsheets very often. You also want to keep records for a long time, maybe decades, but you don’t want all of them readily accessible – some go off to long term offline archives, or tape robots or whatever. You will also generate millions more records than you will develop content for the website so the retrieval and indexing process is probably different.

My sense is get a tool that does one thing really well and leverage it to the max. Don’t try and make word do spreadsheets.