Wednesday 19 June 2013

When to back down

Boxing Glove Wind Chime?
Boxing glove wind chime by JPott on
Flickr, used under creative commons
When do you back down, and when should you be bolshy? Is it a matter of experience, or are there any hard and fast rules?
There is plenty of best practice guidance that can be applied to websites:  
  • Accessibility
  • Editorial style
  • Branding
  • Usability
  • Cross-platform compatibility
And lots more, especially for public sector websites.
Sometimes it’s hard to follow all the rules. Sometimes it's impossible – these rules can conflict with one another. For example, NHS branding guidance states that logos should be top right. But what happens if usability testing of your new homepage design shows that users commonly expect the logo to be the home button, and the home button to be top left. How do you resolve that?

It's also common to be asked to do something that breaks these rules. For example, you can be put under pressure to put a news item on the homepage that doesn't belong there.
You certainly don’t want to give in to pressure and just do something that’s against your judgement because you’re being asked to by someone higher up the food chain. But if there is a clear conflict of opinions or reasoning, someone has to make a choice. That’s where your organisational priorities and web strategy can come in.

In the logo placement example, is it more important to your organisation to do exactly what the NHS branding people tell you to do, or to make your website behave in the way your users expect? In the homepage news item example, is it more important to get an urgent message across, even though it's only relevant to a small handful of staff, or to delay the message while the content author sorts out a better way of communicating with his niche audience?
Because whichever way you go, you need to be able to explain why you chose that route, either pointing to empirical evidence (e.g. user testing) or a documented decision path (e.g. a policy, corporate document, meeting minutes, or email chain). Be clear who is empowered to make those decisions – is it you, or do you have to escalate?
If you really don’t want to back down on something, ever, you probably need to enshrine it in some form of policy, or if your organisation operates on a less formal structure, by convincing the highest authority (such as the CEO) of your case, so you know they’ll always back you.
For your own sanity, it is worth applying the 80:20 rule. This might mean applying all your best practice guidance in 4 out of 5 situations, and allowing 1 in 5 pages to not come up to scratch; or it might mean applying 4 of your principles without exception, and being flexible on the fifth rule. 
Eighty per cent compliance should be enough to demonstrate the usefulness and worthiness of the guidelines, without giving you a reputation as a harridan. The worst thing you can do is be so inflexible in applying rules, that people walk away and look for another solution in order to bypass you, whether that’s phoning your colleagues or boss to see if they’ll give a different answer, or building their own separate website.

Key points:

  • A little compromise can be the key to a successful working relationship for years to come.
  • Listen and understand their point of view.
  • Know your boundaries and how far is reasonable to go to fight your corner, and when to back down for the greater good.
  • Know what to do when you can’t solve the problem yourself.
A lot of this is about experience, but it’s also about being confident in your arguments (why you are asking for something to happen) and in knowing where you and your policies stand in the pecking order, not of who is more influential than whom, but of organisational priorities.


Tuesday 11 June 2013

Dealing with requests for news features: Whose homepage is it, anyway?

Poster Layers, 2009-05-13
Who's got top billing?
Image by Michael Comiskey
and used under creative commons
Webmistresses and intranet-meisters will quickly recognise a serial homepage news item requestor.
This person thinks their service, event or publication is the only topic that anyone in the world/organisation can possibly be interested in, and is so vital it must be featured prominently for at least a month.
You might think you can feature it for a day or two and then remove it and they won’t notice – wrong. The moment you give something else top billing, your phone rings, and they’re telling you that they’ve had loads of feedback that no one can find their information.
That’s not to say their anecdotes aren’t true. Those who have always been given homepage features for prolonged periods may not think it's important to put much thought into their permanent pages – if indeed they have them. They've probably not thought about making them easy to find, using search-optimised language. They have also trained their users to be lazy, so now they expect to be able to spoon-feed their audience with a direct link, rather than using the search or A to Z or navigation occasionally.

What to do

  • Spend some time with this problem user. Understand what they need, and offer genuine solutions where you can.
  • Explain that it’s not wrong to expect users to have to work a bit and look past the homepage, as long as you educate them of the need to do so, and make the search and navigation work.
  • Recognise that the web team may partly be to blame – have you actually checked that their pages are in the right places in the navigation, cross-linked them from relevant related pages, and done what you can to boost the return of logical search results? Is it easy to find archives of older news items?
  • Explain that after a while users will become blind to the same old content. Better to take the feature away and bring it back again later in the month, because the visual impact of the change (especially of a new image, but even of the changing shapes of the words on the page) will do more to draw attention than a clipart icon that's quickly becoming part of the furniture.
  • Explain the dilemma you're facing. For example, you might say there are 2,500 pages on the intranet and, believe me, everyone wants a slot on the homepage. We can’t possibly do this so we try to be fair, and rotate in everything in a timely fashion. but we must also ensure that the structure, search and permanent content is top notch, so everyone can find what they need regardless of the current homepage content. (Then drawn them into your plan to improve their permanent pages.)
  • You may also be able to offer some alternative channels or widgets for promoting their content. For example, send them to internal communications colleagues for possible inclusion in the next all-staff email, or see if they can turn their news item into a question for a poll, interview for your staff magazine or feature for the chief exec’s blog. You might be able to re-purpose web news for your intranet, or vice-versa. If your organisation still has a print budget you could even send them off to a designer for a poster campaign.
Rather than seeing this person as a periodic pain, try to fix their problem. It may not rid you of the requests completely, but at least you’ll understand their requirements better and, with luck, they will understand why you can’t always give them top billing and appreciate that you are doing your best to help them. You’ll also hopefully be better able to differentiate between times when they are ‘crying wolf’ and when there is a genuine need to pull out the stops for them.