When a website redesign becomes a content governance project
On the Content in Practice podcast, Geoffrey Daniel (Twitter, LinkedIn) talks about bringing a user focus and content governance to the website of the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia.
A transcript of the podcast is below. Music used in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions.
- Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia
Content in Practice: The content operations podcast is produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, and presented by Content Strategy Inc. Theme music by Lee Rosevere, Happy Puppy Records.
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When Geoffrey Daniel (Twitter, LinkedIn) signed on to help with a website redesign, he had a sneaking suspicion the project might be more than a simple redesign. He had just spent nearly six years working with a municipal government to bring about digital transformation, so he had first-hand experience into how the manifestations of content problems can hide the underlying condition.
What he knew for sure was that the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia needed to do a better job of focusing on the users of its website.
And when you need to focus on users, you first need to understand who they are, and what they need.
Geoffrey Daniel: Some of the strategic goals are really interesting, especially as it pertains to UBC. So we’re not looking for students. We reject nine out of ten students. We don’t need to say, “Hey, come to UBC.” We’re not selling widgets. We are very much looking for the right fit. We don’t want people to fail out. We want the best people for our organization to go forward.
And creating content strategy around that is a vastly different experience than say, like, for hospitals, where you’re only coming to this content because someone you know in your life has been hurt. So I have to style my content to relate to your experience. I need to make sure you get the information you need knowing your mindset. Same thing for government, where you’re only coming here because we owe you money or you owe us money.
So the context about what I give you needs to reflect that. Here, people actually might browse. They actually might look around. It is the idealized shopping experience of when you want people to browse, people are doing that naturally. So what are you serving them to make them choose between you and Carleton? Or York? Or what have you. It’s a very different content delivery experience.
Blaine Kyllo: So it’s not that you aren’t trying to sell the experience that students would get coming to UBC, because there is a competitive aspect to it. You want them to choose UBC Law as opposed to another law school. At the same time, you need to make sure that the ten people who might not be a fit for UBC Law have an understanding of that.
Geoffrey: For Allard, we are a law school with a social justice bent. If you’re looking for a “Suits”-esque law experience where you go and graduate into a giant firm, you can have that experience at Allard, but we’re also deeply interested in the rights of indigenous people and reconciliation. We are also interested in social justice and the rights and roles of minorities in a society. And industrial and global law that might punish people who don’t have the funds to actually exist in this world.
These are a lot of the things that Allard is interested in that might not align with your values if you just want to graduate to a giant law firm and go that particular path.
The user research portion of this project has been incredibly educational. Despite the fact that we see them in the halls and they are constantly wandering by as we run to our different meetings, nobody was considering the students. They were the part of the mechanism of keeping everything working. But no-one was considering their perspectives and their experiences when it came to actually creating the content.
Part of the work that I did that was most illuminating for the rest of the law school was how agitated students were. They tend to collect information very quickly. There’s a lot of high-pressure demands and this law school is expensive. They needed a source of truth and the website wasn’t that. There were some fundamental problems from things like inaccurate content and stuff being in different pockets.
So the students created their own way to that source of truth. They would gather in a Facebook group and send a couple of key students to go in and find that source of truth and bring it back to the Facebook group because there was some worry that the information they would get if they looked on their own would be inaccurate.
Blaine: The users created their own experience because it wasn’t provided for them.
Geoffrey: Exactly. And that became one of the key problems that we needed to solve. We needed to become the source of truth because that’s what we’re here for. Fundamentally, we’re here to serve them. Especially when it comes to something as stress-inducing and costly as admissions. We need to be the source of truth. We need to be the source of truth when it comes to, “What are my course expectations supposed to be like?” Or, “Where do I live while I’m doing that?” We need to be the source of truth.
It’s not that the institution was trying to hide information. Staff was sharing these details with students every day and there was a commitment to providing the right answers.
Geoffrey: I think we weren’t having the right kinds of conversations with the students. A lot of the staff at Allard are doing this kind of work off the sides of desks. But so committed to actually providing the right answers. So it’s a pretty typical use case. While they would spend an hour creating their content, they would spend days worth of time answering every single email that came in from every single student.
The level of commitment was there, but there’s obviously imbalance in terms of time and effort into putting it into the right vehicles and channels. And hopefully, the revamp of the website will actually answer their questions quicker so they can do less of the answering emails.
Blaine: Give that information to students where they need it, when they need it, then you’ve got a whole lot fewer emails coming in. In some organizations, it’s difficult to get people to understand why we have a user focus on our content. What was your experience?
Geoffrey: There’s always been a focus on the students. It was more the energy had been misplaced in phone calls and in emails, versus placing that same amount of care, effort, and energy on the website itself. Staff understood that there was value to the website, but due to structural issues about how the website worked, and the process of making updates, they found it burdensome and onerous and tended to say, “I’m going to put my time in over here as opposed to actually working with the website.” So fixing the structural problems became one of the core priorities of the revamp and relaunch.
That’s how the planned website refresh for the Allard School of Law became a full-on governance project.
Blaine: This started off as a website project. It still is. But you’ve also talked about it being a governance project. How did that transition happen? How organic was it? How difficult was that to sell?
Geoffrey: As a digital practitioner, what oftentimes happens is you’re told to come in and evaluate what is oftentimes, “We want to refresh our website.” And you nod sagely to yourself and after about a month of diving in and understanding the problem, you present, “When you say, ‘refresh,’ what you actually mean is a large-scale rebuild not only of the website itself but how you manage content.” And there’s oftentimes a push and a pull, as there oftentimes is when budget is a consideration.
While I’ve been at Allard, I did that work for the first month, month-and-a-half, and presented back a list of, “these are your problems.” And those problems were your “bog-standard” ones: The people who are contributing to the website found that the CMS was a barrier. They didn’t have the proper education to write for the web. And they didn’t feel like the structure of the website itself wasn’t designed to really – the structure being the IA – wasn’t designed for people to actually find what they were looking for.
But other problems started to emerge. Staff needed an intranet, for example, and we needed to take all that staff-related information off the website itself so it could function as its own thing. It lacked defined personas, you know, the grab bag of content strategy problems. So when I read this back to my leadership, they said, “Oh, can you try tackling all this stuff as well?” I was taken aback.
We went to solve what they now saw, and quickly understood, “These are the things we are here to solve.” They had done a rebuild about two years ago and found the website fell back into its same place. And that’s where the governance piece came in. It was, “We can do what you’ve asked me to do, but it’s just going to fall back into the same place unless you have a structure and a framework to support good content generation and people doing that for them.” And they accepted it. It was great.
Blaine: Universities and colleges and post-secondaries are by their very nature siloed because the different departments and disciplines are so different and they are used to having autonomy. The English department does things their way because that’s what works for English. Business does things their way because that’s what works over there. But when we’re talking about web experiences for a larger institution, this is where we need to start breaking down silos. Has that been something you’ve struggled with at Allard? Or are they working autonomously.
Geoffrey: They work well person-to-person, but digitally there’s a gap in the ways in which they communicate with each other. There’s a lot of trust when a person wanders over to your desk and has a conversation with you, but if they can’t reach you they’ll go about doing their own thing.
So one of the problems at Allard was, I referred to it earlier as “sources of truth”. Oftentimes you would have the same document appear in different parts of the site because there wasn’t a lot of … call it “digital trust”. “I’m in Admissions. I know that I need these students to fill out these forms and I know the form may exist over here, but I really want them to know it’s here, so I’m going to put it here.” And then you would have version control issues that plagued the entire website.
The way we’re trying to solve that is introducing the concept of “related content”. So any time, if you’re on a page about admissions, you can also reference, “And if you want to live here, here’s your residence options.”
I’m hoping, through using related content, we will start to bridge that gap. And if Mary’s content about “what jobs are available to me after I graduate” can live in the admissions, “how to I get into this law school to begin with,” if there can be trust – “I just need to take this piece and put it over here” – and that’s complete and it will always be the source of truth, I’m hoping to bridge that digital trust issue that permeates throughout the school itself.
Blaine: So that’s getting in to content components that you can move around and place where you need to. And that’s where the taxonomy becomes so critical.
Geoffrey: So very critical. The other thing is, as an aside, when we start to talk to faculty about how they define their work, and if I am a second year law student, I may understand the difference between taxation law and the various ways in which it can impact my learning. But I may need some help understanding or breaking down criminal law.
So we’re working with faculty to use plain language terms for the work that they do. Something that a lay person might understand, or something that a person who’s sticking their toe into understanding the law will be able to understand themselves and sort of comprehend as a way of better explaining what the faculty does and why it’s important.
Blaine: That said, you have a unique audience that you’re talking to here. And so you’re not going to have the same content standards that a website for new parents is going to have, where the reading level may be very simple and plain. You’ve got different standards.
Geoffrey: It’s been quite the challenge. I came from government before, and the content standards for government are, “Let’s aim for seven to ninth grade level.” I now see content that is a PhD level pass by my desk on a regular basis.
There is some flexibility with our standards, but what has been the guiding light for us is to put the most important information at the top. Everything else, the deep dive, feel free to have that, but give people what they need in the first paragraph. It’s not that I don’t care, but I care less about what follows it. That in and of itself has been a guide the faculty first sort of balked at, but now it’s like, “I get it.” If I’m just trying to decide what law school I am going to, this makes perfect sense to me.
One of the other personas we are aiming at is visiting professors, people who might come to work here and want to know what their colleagues are doing. But they are comfortable with reading to the bottom of what I have to say.
So we have satisfied both of those personas by structuring our content in a way that allows the most important information to be at the top.
Another way that higher education content projects differ from others is that people in the academic environment tend to be more respectful of the role of the expert, and may recognize their own limitations. That can make them more willing to take the advice of someone who is an expert in something they are not.
Geoffrey: In my experience there has been a very good give and take between, “I understand you are the expert of this thing. Teach me about this thing.”
One of the most gratifying moments of my career was my boss, a highly educated individual, been at some of the most prestigious schools across the country and in the States as well, was presenting to his peers in the faculty, speaking about how taxonomy and related content work. He painted a picture – took us on a bit of a tour – he painted a picture of being on a roller coaster and that once you are on the roller coaster, you whiz from this way to that way and there’s dips and dives and blind corners. And he said, “That’s how we navigate our website right now. There’s no contextual reason why this thing is linked to this thing and why I’m dumped to a page that no longer has any navigation. Our website currently is like riding a roller coaster, and a rickety one at that. And what we want to do through using taxonomies and related content, was to give a smooth, consistent experience, closer to riding the bus. Where you know what your next stop is, and you’ve got context about how many stops you’ve taken.”
Blaine: As exciting as the roller coaster experience can be, if your job is to try and get information to help you make decisions, you don’t want to be on a roller coaster.
Geoffrey: Certainly. And if no-one told you you were going on a roller coaster, and you’re expecting, say, a website, for example, the roller coaster experience may be a touch terrifying.
Blaine: Despite the fact that in this higher education setting, there might be a better appreciation for expertise and the flat structure – that you have the context of – means that it’s easier to disseminate those messages and get that work done. There’s still the constant resource issue problem, isn’t there?
Geoffrey: There absolutely is. Within Allard there is one core communications person and her functions spread across the entire organization. So she operates as the digital strategist, the PR person, the traditional comms person, the person who is responsible for all communication that the law school has with the outside world. And it’s daunting. Her day-to-day operations pull her in 17 different directions. She wears several hats and sometimes quite a few hats on at the same time.
Blaine: How do you solve that problem? Especially from this governance perspective? Is there a way to distribute that effort so that there’s not too much on that single person?
Geoffrey: It is something we’re working on. Something that I promised her when I first started working with her was that there will be structures and protocols for how content comes to her. Currently, the process is someone runs into her office with a fistful of papers, saying, “I need this on the website.” And the structures I want to put in place are that what might come to her in a different way, shape, or form that’s likely to be programmatic. So she’ll get an email saying that there’s content ready for her to review. The things that a standard CMS is supposed to do should help her actually manage her job.
It’s worth noting that she was a person who did the web project off the side of her desk two years ago so it’s seen her good work all fall to pieces. And was advocating for someone to come in and help with this work.
It’s funny. I oftentimes think of consultants coming in to these kinds of spaces where there’s a person doing everything as the equivalent of being on an online date, where you’ve read what the person is, from their resume or Tinder profile or whatever it happens to be, you have a lower expectation. “Sure, we’ll see.” And then you find that the person actually can talk the talk and walk the walk, and your expectations go skyrocketing. “Okay, let’s solve all the world’s problems together.” That’s the part we’re in.
I’m not capable of solving all the problems, but the ability of slowly pulling things off of her plate has made us fast friends and good coworkers.