Tuesday 6 December 2011

I miss my CMS

I’ve just moved to a new job and left behind a content management system (CMS) that I specified, procured, and then worked with for about three years. Call me sentimental, but I miss the old girl. And not just that particular CMS – I miss having one at all (except for a teensy bit of the intranet).

I'll explain why I’m feeling so bereft:
  • Speed. With a CMS you should be able to add an item to the site’s A to Z in a couple of clicks rather than 15 minutes copying, pasting and editing multiple pages.  And who wants to have to search the whole site every time you change a link, making the same change in multiple places, when you could  update it in a link library just once and have it shared immediately across the site.
  • Workflow. Forget pestering your boss to ask her to approve your work. Within a managed system she might get an automatic notification, or maybe even a nice orderly approval queue. And wouldn’t it be nice if she could see exactly what changes you made from the old version, and refer to an audit trail that doesn’t rely on manual updating of spreadsheets.
  • Quality assurance. As well as spotting broken links and accessibility issues, if you can lock down your WYSIWYG editor you can prevent all sorts of extraneous colours, fonts and styles sneaking on to your website or intranet (those pesky contributing editors...).
  • Support. When it all goes wrong, it’s great to have a whole user community and some experts (paid to be) on the end of the phone, rather than always having to wade your lonely way through reams of code or rely on – gulp – IT support.
Of course all this depends on having a CMS that is fit for purpose, that suits your way of working and that’s really giving you value for money.

There are always a few niggles. But guys, however much you hate your system when it doesn’t save your painstaking editorial changes or forces you to go into the code to sort out a nested list, spare a moment for CMS-less me.
Send technology, and tea.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Managing contributors in a devolved content management system

One of the toughest parts of a web manager’s job is dealing with the groups of authors who have access to your content management system (CMS).

Not every organisation has a CMS, and the question of whether or not to devolve any element of editing in the first place is quite another blog post. But if you use any kind of devolved system you will probably have come across some or all of these challenges:
  • People who insist on access ‘just in case’ but actually never use it
  • Regular users who simply can’t – or won’t – take on board house style, web best practice, or anything else you regularly end up correcting
  • Managers who want to have final sign-off and don’t understand why communications / the web team want to check their work
  • Profligate uploaders who have no idea about version control, putting on multiple versions of the same document
  • Tweakers who just want to play with the code or use every colour and heading and clip art image they can find

And there are plenty more. But rather than make this post a moan, here are my top tips for reducing the pain. 
In fact, you might even reap some benefits and save some time and energy.
  • Make it a prerequisite that editors must use the CMS regularly. It is the once-a-year users, and those who try to use it for the first time six months after their training, who cause the most problems. It will usually be genuinely quicker and easier for them, and you, if they simply email you their updates.
  • Provide more than just technical training, whether that is running workshops, a blog or providing one-to-one support. Help editors understand style, accessibility, writing for the web; share your expertise. Make sure they know how to get help.
  • Keep editors informed of changes and ask their opinions – making them feel valued and part of a community will help your relationship with them.
  • If you can, adjust CMS settings to restrict the amount of freedom your editors have. If possible, prevent them from being able to get into the code, or make simple changes such as removing the ‘italicize’ button from the style options in your WYSIWYG editor.
  • Don’t just rely on your CMS though - use a workflow to approve or reject content centrally. This enables you to ensure consistency and uphold standards. There will always be someone who uses bold instead of an H2 style, or insists in writing all in caps.
  • For those who oppose you approving their pages:
    • Demonstrate the value your editorial hand can add, for example by re-working a section of their content and providing evidence of improved usability.
    • Suggest a trial period to allay their fears.
    • Ensure you really are adding value; you may have no need to approve committee papers, policies, financial statements or press releases. Considering allowing this kind of content to bypass the workflow.
  • When rejecting items, explain what the editor has done wrong and why and ask them to make corrections. If you always do it yourself you can’t expect them to learn.
  • Regularly review the list of CMS users and don’t be afraid to disable accounts of those who haven’t used it recently or who are unresponsive to training.
  • Work with key stakeholders to enshrine your principles in formal policy.
Do you disagree with my list? What rules work for you? 

Wednesday 10 August 2011

What to Tweet: ideas for everyday organisational tweeting

Congratulations on setting up your corporate Twitter account. Now: what are you going to say?

For public sector organisations who are only just starting out, it can be daunting coming up with enough material to create a useful, active account.

Sometimes we all get tongue-tied when faced with “What’s happening?”

This is my go-to list, but I’d love to know what other types of tweets you post regularly.

News and media
  • Press releases – as long as they are not the only things you tweet. If you publish them on your website you may be able to generate an RSS feed to automatically post these to Twitter. 
  • Breaking news, such as disruptions to services or major incidents. Ensure you have the appropriate authorisation in place and it is part of your overall communications and media handling strategy. 
  • Positive news stories about your organisation. Even if they’re almost word-for-word reproductions of your press releases, the headlines used by newspapers are often more attention-grabbing, plus radio and TV news sites may contain supplementary audio or video clips. 
  • Instances of your experts talking about national issues in the media, being published or receiving awards - even better if you can trail them in advance of a TV or radio appearance.
You could also publish rebuttals of negative news stories, but treat with extreme caution especially if it’s an emotive or sensitive issue. If you get a direct question by @ or DM, seek an official line and advice from your press officer. It may be appropriate to steer the discussion offline. And sometimes it’s best to stay quiet.

Web, print and multimedia content
  • Links to new content, or existing content that you’re particularly proud of or that is particularly topical. This could be:
    • Video
    • Photos
    • Patient experiences 
    • Departments or services 
    • Transactions that can be carried out via your website
    • Job vacancies
    • Performance measures and statistics
    It’s ok to pick a random piece of content. People don’t read your Twitter account like a book so most of them they won’t remember you tweeted the same video when it was first put on YouTube 6 months ago and even if they do it might remind them to watch it, comment or retweet it. But don’t spam everyone with the same video every day for a week.
  • New publications, such as your annual report, corporate plan or even simple leaflets. If you have a regular magazine, you can tweet that the new issue is out, and repeat this while highlighting various articles over the following days. 
  • Your other channels (sparingly, as channels can attract disparate audience segments). Tell your Twitter followers you’re on Facebook, YouTube and Quora, as well as on the end of the phone.
  • Events such as open days and meetings. Trail them in advance. Invite questions before and during. Tweet updates and multimedia during the event, and link to the minutes, transcript or other records afterwards.
  • Fundraising for your organisation. You can’t link to each individual’s JustGiving page but you can draw attention to big charitable events or outstanding achievements.
  • Advice and campaigns. Whether it’s the winter flu jab or a campaign to keep a particular service in operation, Twitter can gather people together and spread messages. The messages you see on posters round your organisation can become the theme of a week’s tweets and you can invite interaction, comment and support, as well as sharing evidence and arguments.
  • RT compliments from service users – with caution. Do ensure you put the tweet in context by researching a little way into the timeline. It would be insensitive to retweet a compliment about your cancer nurses when the author’s father has just passed away on the ward. And ensure you also thank the user.
  • Invite comment. You’re on a social platform. Ask questions and request feedback about your organisation but ensure it’s then channelled appropriately.
  • Local news and events, especially those that are related to your organisation’s area of expertise and the interests of your followers. Thus local councils, health service, emergency services, universities, community groups and charities might, for example, retweet selected items of one another’s content. This adds to the sense of community and you may like to adopt a geographical hashtag.
  • Relevant national news and events, especially if you can add a local spin.

There’s no magic formula about how many tweets you should issue per day and it’s certainly better not to tweet than to constantly spam your followers (what not to tweet is a whole ‘nother blog post). One or two pithy nuggets a day might be quite enough, if the quality is high. Test different styles and frequencies on your particular audience, and see if it has an effect. The worst crime of all is silence – registering an account and never using it, or using it a few times then drying up completely.

Tell me about your sources of inspiration and what you think of my list.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Top of the class?

Yesterday saw the publication of the Socitm report that informed a discussion group entitled ‘How good is your hospital’s website’, at the NHS Web Futures ’11 event.

The report is:
“...a mini survey of the usefulness and usability of nine high profile, city-based hospitals in England... [which] assessed how easy it was to complete five common tasks likely to be high on the priority list of every patient...
“The survey revealed a distinct lack of customer focus likely to leave patients and visitors struggling to find this key information.”
Before you read the mini survey of NHS hospital websites in full, I’ll declare my interest, which is that ‘my’ hospital, Southampton General (part of SUHT) came out rather well.

I have mixed feelings about this. It’s all very well being the model pupil but if you and your small selection of classmates are all dressed in shades of ‘must try harder’, and some of the kids you consider the cleverest (such as Imperial or King's) are excluded from the rankings, then it’s a strange victory.

On the other hand, I viscerally support the principle of focusing on the user experience, rather than giving in to internal politics or lazily building everything around corporate structure. I agree we have a lot to learn from web best practice in general, and from each other.

Socitm didn’t carry out this survey for their own amusement; there’s a suggestion that they could facilitate a programme of review, learning and networking for the NHS similar to Better Connected, from which local government websites benefit.

Why might we want this?

An external source of validation might:

  • provide new qualitative and quantitative measures of success;
  • instil a healthy sense of competition and enable benchmarking;
  • give less experienced web teams a basic roadmap and some good examples to follow;
  • gain recognition for the work carried out by web teams and add weight to negotiations for resources (in local government, CEOs and elected members are rather interested in Better Connected scores);
  • create economies of scale: for example, if the review questions were based on evidence of user requirements, it would save individual Trusts repeating the same basic research.

What do we have to lose?

I've got some questions:

  • How much would it cost to sign up to the process? (Though what price a poor website?)
  • Is it valid to have objectives set for us by an external body?
  • Might some organisations become lazy and reliant on the service? It would not solve all our problems for us – there’s still hard work involved.
  • What if one size doesn’t fit all? Some websites might fail to meet very specific and valid local requirements while they are busy trying to meet nationally-agreed, but less locally-relevant, criteria.
  • What ‘teeth’ does this review have? Council websites haven’t improved solely as a result of benchmarking. Many other factors been important, notably government requirements for certain services to be provided online, and mandatory submission of links to certain content to the central DirectGov hub.

A taste of things to come

Events like NHSWF are rare opportunities for NHS webbies to meet, share and learn. Should we go down a route similar to Better Connected, with perhaps an ‘official’ (DH-sponsored?) flavour, it might be the shape of things to come.

The report summarises the model of good practice and ‘top tasks’ tested in the survey, but a few points leapt out from the ‘How good is your hospital’s website’ discussion, facilitated by John Fox:

  • The importance of being able to find particular top tasks direct from Google – how many of us focus on menus and the homepage, and neglect SEO?
  • The fact that some very pretty websites were actually impossible to use. They can fool your stakeholders but fail when you are a patient or visitor.
  • It’s particularly important - and difficult - to prioritise user experience if you are a Trust with multiple distinct hospital buildings or sites.
  • Sometimes we overlook the basics. We mustn’t get blinded by our specialist knowledge and forget that many really don’t know or care about, for example, the difference between primary and acute services.

In reality

It was disheartening to note defeatism among some website managers.
 “I would like to, but you don’t know how strong and influential those people are”
Maybe I’ve just been lucky to work in two public sector environments where I’ve had a supportive boss, been encouraged to innovate, and always felt able to put forward a reasonable argument for change.

Partly it must genuinely be due to issues with corporate culture, personalities and politicking, but partly I think websites in some NHS organisations just don’t have enough weight, by which I mean expertise, evidence, experience and resource. Might a national comparative survey and support service help?

Wednesday 20 July 2011

NHS Web Futures - first thoughts

NHS Web Futures ‘11 was a mini event attached to the annual Building Perfect Council Websites conference, and was a rare opportunity to meet face to face with opposite numbers in NHS and other public sector organisations, share ideas and pick up some clues to future trends.

It’s hosted by Socitm (more of them later) and E-Government Bulletin (worth subscribing to this free email newsletter). Get a better idea of the scope of the event from the NHSWF11 programme and the main #bpcw11 hashtag.

I was a bit lonely on #nhswf11 – not sure what that says about the state of SM in the NHS or whether my fellow NHS attendees didn’t pick up on the official hashtag. 

I’ll expand on a couple of the individual sessions in separate posts but my top takeaways were:

  • A statistic – that only 11% of under 18s use email. How are we expecting people to communicate in future? And not just patients/citizens – thinking about internal communications, too.
  • An estimate – that NHS websites are 5 years behind local government. Are we really? I think overall we’re behind, but we have some excellent examples of good practice in transactions, content, usability, social media and other fields and we need to shout about and share them between us. 
  • A profession – in the NHS, big websites are often run by people with little or no digital experience and who are juggling several other roles, or may be outsourced and possibly neglected. Perhaps this is partly because there’s little understanding of the value of investing in a good website – do we need some role models and some concrete evidence?

Having worked in local government previously (as the content manager for a now-defunct district council, or I’d point you to their website), I’ve observed that local government web teams seem to have more internal reputation and clout (and resources) than NHS ones, but their websites are often unwieldy behemoths, as regulation requires them to provide a lot of specific information and services online. We have comparative freedom on our websites but that’s not necessarily helpful – I am starting to wonder whether we need some more structure.

Monday 20 June 2011

From mystified to mastering new technologies. Hello, QR codes.

I haven't yet actually mastered this one, but I've always been intrigued by how people grab hold of innovations. What's the process for noticing, understanding, using and finally becoming a creator?

Around the start of this year I’d kept seeing tweets about QR codes and hadn’t got a clue what they were. Eventually I got bored of wondering and googled for a definition.

I realised we could replace the URLs printed on our patient information, for example, with barcodes that would link to our site, but this didn't really excite me as I couldn't yet imagine why anyone would want to - what was the value? Would it really be that much more convenient?

Rabbit, rabbit

The first tipping point came when I found myself actually using a code myself in a magazine. It was an advert for a novel, When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman.

The curious title intrigued me but the advert gave few clues to the plot, just some quotes from reviews and a cover image. The QR code label said “SCAN HERE TO VIEW THE TRAILER”. I wondered how a book could have a trailer. Curiousity sufficiently piqued, I reached for my phone and scanned.

Now I could see the point. I wasn’t going to buy the book but:
  • I’d had a full-on sensory experience, viewing a video that was designed to bring me a flavour of the book,
  • in seconds and 
  • from the comfort of my bed. 
The impulse nature of the action intrigued me and I could see how easy it would have been to progress straight to Amazon’s phone app and order the novel immediately, if I’d wanted to read it. All in under a minute (and without even sitting up). I also liked the way online and offline and mobile had combined, with the use of the video medium (albeit a glorified powerpoint slideshow) to promote a print product, from a phone-activated web link in another printed publication.

Making it work

In a hospital context, QR codes could replace or supplement URLs on the back of patient information leaflets, linking to the website for further information (such as frequently updated lists of dates or videos of patient experiences).

We could also use them on posters or elsewhere to encourage patients and visitors to download their own copy of our literature, to reduce print runs.

And how about putting them in the bottom of display bins and leaflet holders for use when they are temporarily empty? We could monitor take-up of those codes to find out when our displays need refilling.

The next step is to try it!

Friday 1 April 2011

#oceanward – tweeting a day in the life of a children’s heart unit

This blog post was first published on the NHSSM (NHS social media) blog.

Inspiration struck only an hour after we first became aware of #Walsall24, during a team brainstorm about raising Southampton’s profile in the Safe and Sustainable national children’s heart surgery review. Walsall Council had followed in the footsteps of Greater Manchester Police’s 24-hour tweet, but so far, we 
weren’t aware of an NHS tweetathon.

Tweeting the activities of an entire hospital would have been a logistical nightmare but following a single specialist service seemed a more manageable proposition, and the campaign to differentiate the Trust from our rivals seemed an opportune moment for a social media experiment.

It would be partly a gimmick – doing a UK first in order to gain press attention. But we had a less cynical purpose. #oceanward would aim to highlight the wealth of specialist knowledge, the volume of work, the complexity of procedures and depth of ongoing care on our specialist children’s heart ward. It would also give a human face to the patients and families whose lives would be fundamentally affected by the loss of the second highest quality service in the country.

We moved quickly in case any of the other at-risk cardiac centres had the same idea. #Walsall24 happened on Thursday 3 March and we tweeted #oceanward on Friday 11, deliberately coinciding with the visit of local councillors (among them the social-media-savvy Leader).

Telling a story

In order to control the message (specialist, professional centre of excellence) and draw our audience into the human stories before we punched through with the calls to action, we wanted to produce an overall narrative that followed patients through their day. We therefore decided to write the tweets as observers rather than handing over to the staff as first person tweeters. Given the tight timescales this was a pragmatic approach that also solved the problems of providing training or setting up multiple accounts and meant the nurses and doctors could go on with their daily business with minimal distraction. But I’d certainly like to experiment further and have the staff themselves tweeting a service.

Although the whole communications team supported the effort, coordinating the press coverage, taking photos and helping keep conversation flowing while we had our noses in our iPods, most of the tweeting was carried out by just two of us. Michelle Harris, communications manager, and I both regularly tweet as @SUHT so our conversational register was already established. As the day progressed, we read each other’s tweets to cement the tone and ensure continuity in the patients’ stories. One keen follower told us that the Tweets read “almost like the script of a TV programme”.

Live and unedited

Aside from a handful of scheduled tweets containing long URLs and a cheat-sheet of staff names (we gave up and called Dr James Gnanapragasam just ‘Dr James’) we didn’t plan or plant anything; it was a genuine live action tweet-along of activities as they unfolded. We first met the patients and families on the morning and although the staff had been primed about our visit, we introduced ourselves to them as we introduced them to our audience.

Staff and families alike were welcoming, tolerant and selfless in allowing us access to almost all areas. This was at least partly because everyone is aware of the threat of closure and is passionate to do everything they can to save the unit.

We did back off a few times to preserve privacy and dignity, and some patients were not named because their families were not available to consent. Even though we only used first names and ages (“Evan, 11 days”), consent was vital because these patients could be readily identified by family and friends reading our tweets at home. One follower used an @ to SUHT to wish good luck to her friend who was waiting for her son to go down to surgery, and NHS Plymouth sent best wishes to a patient who had been transferred to us.

Practical considerations

We’d aimed to tweet at least every 5 minutes and in the end managed around 200 updates during our 12 hour shift.  We did have the option of tweeting from desktop computers but roving the ward with iPod Touches was much more convenient and flexible, and produced more immediate results; we were thankful for flawless cooperation from IT, giving us temporary access to the secure wireless network.

We had no budget so used personal iPods and made do with our existing digital camera. Colleagues uploaded the pictures back at the office, which is why the Twitpics in our timeline are out of sync with events on the ward. The photos did get some of the greatest numbers of re-tweets so not doing more of those or having a mobile device with a camera are among our regrets.

Spreading the word

Our press release was picked up on the BBC website and local press and commercial radioIndia Knight and the Department of Health retweeted us, and the council and leading Southampton twitterers also boosted our reach. The emotive nature of the campaign meant we also got some great online interaction with families of patients and other supporters. Overall they issued more than 50 impassioned retweets and sent us over 90 @ messages, including personal requests for us to pass on thanks to particular doctors, to which we happily acquiesced and responded.

At one point around lunchtime Tweetreach.com gave us an audience of nearly 50,000, and we gained 103 new followers for @SUHT over the course of the day, a more than 10% increase.

We didn’t get quite the amount of coverage we might have done (one national broadcaster was lined up to air the story but pulled it) because naturally a lot of air time and news pages went to the Japanese earthquake, but that was rightly so and of course outside our control.