New Year…new contributions and new potentials

3 02 2010

It has been awhile since I last posted to the blog, I will be the first to admit this. However, that will soon be changing. Beginning later this week I should begin a new series of posts focusing on current media issues affecting a wide array of material within the media landscape. Specifically, I anticipate these topics to focus on a myriad of issues being tackled right now with regard to digital content distribution, ownership regulations, infotainment versus hard news and newer media devices making media content more spreadable.

Additionally, I plan to continue expanding upon government issues that either are garnering attention or should be garnering attention as they relate to new media. This area still interests me as a potential career endeavor as my previous posts have alluded to over the past few months. With that being said, keep an eye out for all of the aforementioned posts that are in the pipeline!





Public-Government Interactivity: An Example for the Future

19 12 2009

In the midst of partisan bickering and intra-party squabbling over major policy issues such as health care reform and the federal budget, it isn’t surprising some people are deeply upset over the current direction –or lack there of– of the United States government. However, I will not be weighing in on either of these political hot potato issues.

Instead, attention should be paid to an encouraging sign of the government actively soliciting public insights for greater transparency and interactivity. Luckily, I came across this awesome endeavor and felt it very worthy of passing along.

Following the lead of President Obama’s initiative for greater government transparency with the release of the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies earlier this year, work is underway to increase public input on Data.gov’s future growth. For those unfamiliar with Data.gov, this website serves as a central nerve center of sorts for accessing a plethora of government information presented in one place online. The idea behind such a website is a strong one but it is clear that work remains to make the site more user friendly.

A promising step towards this feat comes through a collaborative effort between the Chief Information Officers Council and several other government groups to shape Data.gov based upon user suggestions. This attempt is being carried out now at the Evolving Data.gov With You website. Here, users can propose ideas for greater government transparency and efficiency that are then viewed by other visitors who can vote in favor of ideas they find most beneficial. The voting concept demonstrated here is very similar to the type of social ranking systems utilized by popular websites like Digg.com that rely upon user input to determine the popularity of user submitted stories.

You may be wondering:

  • Why is this important?
  • Why should I care that about this?
  • What’s in it for me?

For one, the idea that the government is actively working to make an easily accessible platform for visitors to shape how the future of Data.gov evolves is a rather new concept. This is especially relevant when considering it is not just a concept, it is actually being undertaken through actions.

Secondly, as citizens complain about the government turning a deaf ear towards what the people want this should serve as a demonstration of a changing mindset it Washington, D.C. President Obama proposed rather sweeping changes through the aforementioned Memorandum earlier this year to force government entities to tackle ways of making government more responsive to the people it is meant to serve.

Thirdly, the open forum for idea sharing and user contributions at Data.gov provides a free idea generator to the government. By soliciting insights from visitors who perhaps come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, the government can benefit greatly through the variety of different perspectives towards usability these citizens provide.

Along those lines, the website interface of the voting platform used with Data.gov is easy on the eyes and easy to navigate. The structure of each page on the site is consistent so as to limit the chances of a visitor getting lost with no way to retrace their steps. Also, the information presented is clearly separated into different categories allowing users to access the material they are most interested in without wadding through pages of unrelated material.

I have already voted for the ideas which I feel would be most beneficial to citizens trying to access and use information provided from the government. There are many ideas presently waiting for your vote. If you want government to be more responsive, you have to speak up. Here is a great opportunity to do just that. Encourage these initiatives to assist the government in order to help us. I did my part today in this process. Question is, will you do yours?





Advice on website design…….from the government?!?

21 11 2009

Perhaps you are as surprised as I was when I stumbled across a unique website created by the United States government that provides useful advice on website design tips, tricks and tools?

Who would have thunk.

The website is Usability.gov, which is run by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. I knew this website was a break from the norm when the first title on the homepage reads, “Please don’t make me think!” Along similar lines, the color scheme is vastly different from other government websites I have seen. Instead of relying upon blue hues and shades of white, which tends to be standard government website fare, there is an abundance of orange, raspberry purple, teal, yellow and white. Certainly this is not what I would have expected to see prior to visiting this site.

I find this website encouraging for a variety of reasons.

The Mission: to serve as a hub of resources for government website designers to construct more user-friendly websites

The Content: numerous documents, lessons and pointers of design processes

The Resources: various case studies of improved government websites, free design templates and additional educational tools to further design study

Needless to say, this website is a great resource for presenting and understanding basic website design principles. What really surprises me, besides the fact this information is coming from the United States government, is that this website is not more prominently marketed. I for one had no idea this resource existed online. Did you?

There are many websites that could benefit from the principles and resources discussed on this site, regardless if they are public or private sector related.

The wealth of information presented is impressive and for good reason. Instead of simply stating things should be done one particular way, Usability.gov presents actual case studies conducted by government agencies. Under the Methods section on the homepage, you can view several clearly defined categories of ways to approach website design. The categories are as follows:

> Planning the Project

> Analyze Current Site

> Design New Site

> Test & Refine the Site

> Methods at a Glance

I clicked on the Analyze Current Site option and was presented with six sub-topics, each presented in short one or two sentence summations with an accompanying link for further information. This is designed well as it is easy to read and does not represent a cognitive overload.

At this point, I decided to explore the Personas sub-topic. Clicking on the link loads a page with short but clear explanation of key aspects related to analyzing online user personas. At the bottom of the page, a real   example of a user persona is presented from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.    Additionally, the side bar contains several additional real government agency examples of user personas that can be downloaded as Microsoft Word documents.

The information contained on this page alone is insightful and very relevant. Many people complain or assume that the government operates under a veil or secrecy and the public has no idea what really is going on within the halls of power. To that I say, explore Usability.gov. Here there are not just examples outlining how government entities establish and refine their online presence to better serve constituents but great tools that private individuals can use to make their own personal website more user friendly.

As mentioned earlier, I hope this website gets more publicity, it certainly has earned it. Hopefully, my blog post will divert some folks to look into this resource.





Encouraging Web design from the USPS

14 11 2009

When it comes to government websites, it is a rather safe assumption that very few people would characterize them as being aesthetically pleasing or easy to use. With that in mind, I recently was surprised by the United States Postal Service website.

From my perspective both as a citizen and as a student of interactive media, simplicity is tremendously important to website design. It does nobody any good if content is available online but the means to access it is so convoluted that people do not realize the power at their fingertips. Luckily, the USPS realized that a strong design premise would serve their organization’s needs online by way of catering to American’s mailing needs.

Immediately upon loading the homepage, I realized the color scheme is neutral but effective. The white color is, dare I say it, calming! Never would I think dealing with the USPS would be calming. However, for the website it works.
USPS Homepage

Clearly the website design was conducted from a users perspective. Based upon my recent research, this is a rarity for government sites as many are designed from a government agency perspective not the public user perspective. As your eyes descend the page, information is segmented into horizontal oriented boxes. This helps to show separation between different tools and features on the same page.

One of the best elements is a simple step-by-step animation showing how to take care of your shipping needs right through the website. It is appealing to the eyes and simple to understand. Instead of becoming lost in paragraphs of instructions, the images do much of the work. This helps to engage the user and I bet increases efficiency of the user experience as well.

In order to minimize the number of pages on the site, the use of interactive slide shows is demonstrated on the homepage. This is a good use of such a tool because it shows information that is of interest to the user only of the user wants to be exposed to it. Currently, this feature is used to showcase different holiday stamp collections being released in anticipation for the holidays. Not everyone will care to learn of this information so instead of making users wade through it in order to get to what they were looking for, it is made available in an unobtrusive way where the user has control.

There are a wide variety of tools and functions associated through the website. Some of these include:

  • package tracking tool
  • holiday mailing deadlines
  • postal rates
  • change of address capabilities
  • business mailing resources

Many more features are presented through the homepage, the ones above just represent a handful of what is available. Overall, the USPS website provides a plethora of tools for people to access online to assist in their shipping needs. The fact that this has been done with a keen eye towards design and functionality is encouraging as it bucks the trend with most government websites.





Analytics and government Web spaces: together or apart?

11 11 2009

Analytics are important in an online, multimedia world. I have touched upon various facets of this reality in prior posts. But one aspect I have not heard much about is how analytics can be used for public sector websites, in this sense government websites.

I had the privilege this morning to sit in on a presentation by Mark Tosczak, Account Supervisor at RLF Communications, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Greensboro, North Carolina. Even though his perspective represents 15 years of professional communication experience largely in the marketing and public relation fields, several key points he made hold relevance to government websites.

Analytics should be used to assist in understanding how people use Web based resources. Furthering this line of thought, Tosczak made a clear distinction that in order to put the analytics data to work it must be understood. Compiling large data sets will do nothing to improve Web performance or improve user experience if nobody on the development end of a Website has any idea what the data indicates.

Is it possible that the same information that can be pulled from analytics can be deciphered by other means? I think so. Additionally, I think analytics and other approaches should have their own respective seats at the proverbial Internet table. This is exactly the point made by Avinash Kaushik, a Google Analytics expert who heads the Googlepublicsector blog. He emphasizes that instead of relying on vast data streams and trying to interpret them, government websites could accomplish just as much by simply asking visitors directly how their visit to a specified government website turned out.

  • Did they find what they were looking for?
  • How easy was navigating the site?
  • Will they return in the future?

All of these simple questions can be answered via a quick exit survey, minus any analytics.

When analytics are used however, they should be closely tied towards goals. Tosczak indicated that goals are closely tied to measurable actions. Analytics are rather useful in reflecting these measurements. This may also be true for government websites, although it can be very difficult to isolate an exact goal for some political related spaces online.

Overall, analytics can play an important role in helping to understand what is happening online. However, they should not be the only source to guide major decisions relating to usability and website design. That is why simple surveys hold power in this process, in tandem with analytics. Considering both Tosczak, focusing primarily on public relations and marketing, and Kaushik, focusing primarily on government topics, regard surveys as useful applications for gathering information, this should serve as a signal that not all eggs should be placed in the analytics basket. Instead, they should be part of a omnidirectional approach for noting what is happening online and how to advance an web site using the collective intelligence from multiple types of resources.





Applying public ideas to government in the Lone Star State

2 11 2009

I recently completed an academic research paper examining some of the ways in which interactive media, which for sake of this post will include social media, is relating to government. It is along these lines that I find it very fitting to devote a post to the efforts being undertaken in a small Texas town, which could prove to be a litmus test for government adoption of new media tools.

Thanks to the terrific website govfresh.com, I learned about an interesting scenario playing out in the Lone Star State. Manor, Texas is now utilizing the power of collaborative, social crowd sourcing to improve governance. At the very least, that is the idea behind the application called Manor Labs. Essentially, the town realized that there are issues that could be improved for the betterment of the community. However, the questions that come up often in any government body is how to best approach an attempt at a solution to a given problem. Instead of relying upon the combined perspectives of an esoteric few officials huddled inside a boardroom at city hall, why not open up the thought process to the public, the constituents, who interact throughout the community on a daily basis in a multitude of ways. The officials of Manor, Texas Manor, Texas decided to take this process a step further. Instead of limiting idea contribution solely to those living within the town limits, anyone who has Internet access can provide a suggestion. I think this is an excellent advancement to an already great idea, mainly because chances are good that another community elsewhere has or is dealing with similar difficulties and people from these communities can easily provide suggestions that may be applicable in Manor. Voila, a potential solution from someone who has never set foot inside this Texas town!

Motivation can sometimes be lacking when it comes to public participation in local politics this is nothing new. One potential motivating factor may assist in convincing people to check out the Manor Labs application is that of Innobucks. These serve as a currency within the Manor Labs space and can be accumulated from ideas being submitted. A marketplace is therefore present within the application so users can choose to cash in their Innobucks for real, tangible rewards. Although the selection is limited, users Innobucks could be used to spend a shift riding along with the Chief of Police or be Mayor for a day or win a unique custom framed Texas flag. Texas flag

What is happening in Manor, Texas is exciting and could serve as a very valuable model for other communities in the years to come. The fact that a smaller Texas town has realized, coordinated and enacted a working system to harness public insights for the sake of making a better community is proof that government can work for the people. I am curious to see how Manor will build off of this application to make government even more responsive to public input. The future of government, especially relating to interactive media, may be before us in Texas, we all should be taking notice.