Friday, December 26, 2003

Battle of the Bulge

At about this time of the year, many people will be thinking about getting back into shape after a Christmas overdose of turkey, potatoes and wine (in fact, wine, wine and more wine I imagine). You know how it goes, you stare at yourself in the mirror and start to see a few extra acres of flesh. You’re sure it wasn’t there last time you looked, but there it is, bulging out at you. It’s no good if it’s you staring in the mirror – you need an independent view, otherwise you’ll be too kind to yourself. You’ll justify every extra pound of fat, falsely remembering that, actually, it was there before and, really, you don’t look too bad at all. You’ll think about how hard the last year has been and how it’s pretty normal to have gained a few pounds. You can run it off in no time and be back in shape, just the way you were 10 years ago. It’s a short step to beach fitness you’ll say. Your thoughts turn to renewing the membership at the gym - the one that lapsed about 11 months ago; or maybe you'll look for a new gym, one that will hold your interest more than the last one. After the last year of online government development, we may well eaten a little too much turkey. With 2,643 websites (as of July, perhaps as many as 2,900 now) and more than 5,000,000 pages of content, perhaps it’s time for our own Battle of the Bulge programme. Surely every government is in the same position? Our own mirror of online government, viewed from an independent stance (that of the customer of course) may show that we, too, have a few extra pounds – maybe even a stone or two. Things don’t quite seem as lean and focused as perhaps they should. We might imagine that we’re not quite in beach shape. We have a few flabby websites. There are ways to address that of course. A programme of exercise … some long distance running perhaps. It takes time to shed pounds; it certainly doesn’t take just a few days or a couple of weeks of effort. So a long term programme to audit what’s on the website and eliminate what’s no longer relevant – shed the weight to the archive. There will also have to be some weightlifting though, else what remains will be loose and uncomfortable and will fit poorly in the overall context. That means focusing the mind on the content the customer really wants and shaping it so that it fits who visits your site. You’ll likely need a trainer to get this done, someone who will keep you on the path lest you decide that it’s all too hard and you give up before you reach the goal. The goal? Of course, you must set some goals – you must decide how much you want to lose, what the picture of success would look like. Do you want to end up half the size or perhaps twice as fit? Do you want to run the online equivalent of a four minute mile, where every customer shows up, gets what they want and is so impressed that they come back once a month or more to see what else is there? Do you want to run the 100m sprint where you want everyone in the country to visit just one time so that they see what you have to offer and then bookmark the site for future reference? Do you want to run the 110m hurdles in record time – where you remove every barrier that might be in the customer’s way so that they can quickly and easily find the information that they want? You’ll also want to change your diet. Eat a bit less, drink fewer glasses of that fine wine you’ve been savouring. You know that’s as hard as it gets, particularly the wine. But you also know that if you don’t apply the discipline then, pretty soon, you’ll end up just where you were before. You need to think about every article, every document, every statement you put on your website to see whether it really fits with the goal. Does it make a positive difference to the customer? Will people look at it? Will they find it valuable? Will it be useful? You know that none of this is easy. For years, the New Year has started with a rush to the gym – the streets fill with joggers, you can’t get a place on a treadmill, your workouts take twice as long because you have to wait for exercise machines all the time. The sense of enthusiasm and commitment is palpable. For a month at least. By February, things are back to normal. You don’t have to stand in line to bench press, you don’t have to dodge joggers every ten yards along the river. Everything has gone away: the enthusiasm, the commitment, the discipline. Everything? Not quite, the extra pounds stay. Fighting the website flab needs some serious long-term commitment. It can’t be done in a month. It might take you all year. It might even take longer. It might require a lifestyle changing adjustment to the way that you request, create and publish content. It might mean that everyone on the team needs to be trained in what’s really needed. It might require the appointment of a true customer champion who assesses everything from the point of view of the people using the website and makes sure that it fits the goal. If it doesn’t fit the goal, it’s not going live. Of course, if all else fails, there’s always the knife. Short and sharp with a bit of soreness afterwards. A quick vacuum of all the subcutaneous fat and you’ll have the beach body sooner than you think. The life expectancy of obese websites must surely be very limited.

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