Beautiful apps and fancy graphic design should take a backseat to user-relevant content. ICF Digital Strategist Joshua DeLung talks invisible improvements.
From in-laws to job interviews, first impressions are important. The same principle holds true for users interacting with your agency’s online systems. The immediately visible aspects—color gradients, typography, images—are the most important thing about an organization’s digital presence… right?
Citizens need to be able to easily find the content you worked so hard to produce. To effectively implement a citizen-centric customer experience online, government must:
- Adopt a content-first approach to digital strategy
- Stop using CMS-driven websites the same way it did old, static HTML pages
- Focus more on content design and user experience (not just visual design)
If you haven’t conducted research to determine what users are seeking, how they’re finding it, and whether your content is designed to be efficiently found and used in that process—you need to. This is astronomically more important than visual design in attaining your organization’s objectives.
Graphic design is not inherently a bad thing. It can enhance an experience and significantly impact a user’s perception of your organization. But if you have limited resources, as federal agencies often do, time is better spent if you:
- Determine which user needs content must address
- Model the relationships between your different pieces of content
- Structure content to increase initial findability and subsequent discoverability
- Design content to be optimized for search (not just technical search-engine optimization)
- Organize content to help users with task completion
- Document how content will be governed and maintained over time
Users can tolerate ugliness if the experience works for them. Take Amazon or eBay, for example; these sites aren't visually appealing. Layouts are cluttered. Colors are mostly muted and drab. But extensive user testing has allowed these companies to create a system people love to use for several reasons:
- Content is simple and descriptive
- Task completion is fast and easy
- Features function as users expect
- Related content is dynamic and highly discoverable
- Searches work and the results are customizable
Organizations tend to focus on surface beauty—homepage carousels (can we stop it with the carousels?), banner images at the top of pages (which only distract from the actual content), or color schemes of page templates (for which there’s usually an agency style guide already).
Even when there is a focus on content, the natural (and typically wrong) solution is to add more content! Product owners often resist spending time structuring existing content to be delivered to users based on how they use the web now (and how they will use it in the future—OK, Google?) because it’s not as visible as new content.
I’ve heard product owners say, “We don’t want you to spend time on metadata” because their boss can’t see metadata. But often, the ‘invisible improvements’ are what help people complete the task they came to accomplish more easily. For example, most users may be searching Google with a question your agency can answer with one of its downloadable resources—but you can only know that if you’ve done the research, and they can only find it if you’ve optimized it to appear in search results.
Content strategy is a force multiplier for your digital portfolio that helps more users take the actions you want them to take. Content strategy isn’t copywriting, although well-written web copy in plain language is a necessary component.
Successful digital government doesn’t hinge on design that’s beautiful or creative in the traditional sense. It’s about design that helps citizens have the best experience possible, and sometimes that means you must get technical and do things behind the scenes. Government has a lot to offer its citizens, but those offerings are only as good as what constituents can easily find and use.