Digital first is how organizations can stay relevant and meet the needs of users
On the Content in Practice podcast, Padma Gillen (Twitter, LinkedIn) talks about successful digital transformations and the development of Gov.uk. Produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, theme music by Lee Rosevere.
A transcript of the podcast is below. Music used in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions.
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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Padma Gillen is a content advocate. He was formerly the head of content design at the Government Digital Service [https://www.gov.uk], which manages the website for the government of the United Kingdom. While there, he helped drive the transformation of that website, which is now held up as an example of a user-focused experience that puts content first.
More recently he’s worked on the website for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, another UK government department, where the goal was to reduce the amount of content by 80 percent. He’s now working on projects in the higher education space, where institutions are needing to undergo digital transformations that are comparable to what transpired with Gov.uk.
Padma’s collected his experience in a book, Lead with Content. Published by Gather Content, It’s a manual, providing step-by-step instructions on how to ensure that any organization shifting to digital prioritizes the content that is at the heart of everything.
Padma Gillen: What I was trying to do was say, “If you focus on your content, which is the thing that your users focus on primarily, then in order to make that content good, you are likely to have to do certain things in your organization.”
So the organization is going to have to change. And these are the sorts of ways that it should change. And these are the ways to make it happen successfully, even in large established organizations, that don’t like change.
Blaine Kyllo: One of the things that you talk about in the book is how when organizations or companies are small – and you talk specifically about the startup culture – it’s really easy for companies to sort of shift on the fly and make these decisions as they go. At what point do you think an organization becomes too big for that ad hoc approach to work?
Padma: So I’ve got a little theory about that. And my theory is that humans shouldn’t organize themselves larger than a decent-sized village. So I think when you get to about 150 people. With 150 people, there are going to be people that you’re friends with.
They’re going to be people that you’re acquaintances with. And then there are going to be people that you just nod at in the street. But you can pretty much know everybody by face.
When you get beyond that, you inevitably shrink away into groups and outside of that is not your interest. Like you can’t stay on a genuinely human relationship with everybody when you get beyond that. And I think that with organizations, when you get bigger than that you need several layers of management. You need a lot of kind of processes and policies in place. You organize yourselves into silos.
At that point there are enough people in the organization who aren’t directly related to either senior management or the end user, to mean that the organization gets some momentum of its own that isn’t necessarily around meeting the needs of the users or working in the direction that the strategic leadership wanted to work in.
Blaine: The organization kind of becomes an entity unto itself so people can come and go but the thing still happens.
Padma: Yeah, exactly. It’s suddenly this self-perpetuating thing. It becomes its own culture. It gets its own norms, it gets its own language.
You can be an “X company” type of person. You know, you can be one of those people who fits in. That means that the company is going to become averse to risk. You know, it’s going to start attracting the kinds of people that aren’t startup type people, that aren’t looking for that kind of a life. They want some security. They want to be able to read a manual and to know what the structure is and know what the rules are. And then once they know it, once they know all that structural overrules all the jargon or the norms, that gives them status in the organization and it becomes quite a challenge to try and change that.
Because there’s a risk that they will lose their relevance, lose their status. So they’re likely to be resistant to change.
Blaine: They have a vested interest in maintaining status quo.
Padma: Absolutely. And the thing is, you do actually need that sort of person in an organization of a certain size. And I think you, I mean, I generally work with large organizations even though I’m most comfortable in that kind of startup mode. Large organizations, they need stability and they need order and they need process.
And they also need to be challenged. And they need people on the edges of things doing a kind of “Jerry Maguire” mission statement and they need to have people trying to rock the boat a little bit.
If you have too much of either one of those two and you don’t have the right balance of those two, then either the company or the organization becomes stagnant and irrelevant and will eventually fail. Or it is chasing its tail and trying new things all the time and nobody knows what the company does or what the brand is or they can’t relate to it. You kind of need that balance.
Blaine: Do you think that there are some common problems in organizations that have hit this critical mass? Are there problems that they kind of all end up facing with content?
Padma: I know for a fact that there are common problems.
Every organization beyond a certain size that I’ve interacted with in the public sector, the cultural sector, the private sector, they all have the same issues. I hear the same stories again and again. And essentially it’s that there are people who are doing the digital work who know what needs to happen, but they don’t have the power to make that happen and sustain it.
Organizations like that … generally, digital feels quite new, you know, it’s like this new internet thing, even though the Internet has been around 20 odd years. It feels like an add-on. It’s not really what the organization does. They’ve just got this new window that they need to address now.
Whereas digital transformation is saying, “No, digital is now the environment that you live in.”
If you’re not digital first, your organization can’t possibly keep up because there are so many opportunities that digital provides for an organization to stay relevant, to stay meeting the needs of its users. If you don’t have systems in place to access that and to respond to it much more quickly than you ever have done before and to a much higher standard than you ever have done before, there is no way that you are going to stay relevant for the long run.
So your market share might help you out. The fact that you are written into the law or you’re the government of a country or whatever, that’s going to help to draw out your relevance because people have got nowhere else to go essentially.
But as soon as there is any other opportunity for people to choose a different way, they will take it. So time is limited. If you don’t become a digital first organization no matter what sector you’re in then I think your days are numbered. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Blaine: There are examples all over the place of audiences and users actually creating their own digital experience because it wasn’t being provided to them by the people they needed it from.
Padma: Absolutely. And there are a lot of examples of organizations that have every advantage. You know, they have the best research, they can buy the best consultants, they’ve got massive market share. They’ve already got their users that are eager to interact with them. And they just get complacent and a new idea comes about and disrupts the industry entirely.
And that’s happened in pretty much every industry. Who’d have thought that a website like Netflix could totally decimate a company, for example, like Blockbusters. And yet you look back now and it’s inevitable. Same with the music industry. You know, it’s like the music industry had every opportunity to respond to the realities of what was going on, but the way that it responds is to try and nail it down through legality rather than to look at what are the actual opportunities here?
And these are tough conversations to have as an organization and tough changes to make, but I don’t think there’s an option but to make them.
Blaine: You were head of content with the Government Digital Service in the United Kingdom. What does head of content do? What does that title mean? What did it mean in your context?
Padma: I had overall responsibility for the content strategy of the UK government. I had an immediate team of around 60 content designers at the time and was kind of head of a wider community of 2,000 or so people working in content in government.
At that time Gov.uk had been launched but there were still plenty of government content that wasn’t on it. The period that I was involved in really was about all the government agencies, all the government departments had transitioned onto Gov.uk. But there were 330 odd agencies that are all had their own websites or had their own ways of doing things. And all had their own cultures.
Moving onto a single government domain was by no means a straightforward, “Yes please,” to a lot of these organizations. There were the kinds of challenges you can imagine to make it not just, “Well, you’re doing it. This is what we’re doing, like it or lump it.” To, “These are the benefits. This is why this is a good idea. This is why you should be excited about the possibilities and let’s, let’s help you get on board you.
We think of governments being centralized organizations, but the truth is that they are massive bureaucracies that are much more distributed.
Padma: Government isn’t a homogenous entity. The government isn’t one beast. It’s many beasts. And the beasts within the beasts have all got different agendas and they have a great deal of patience as well. So even if you think that you are winning, ten years down the line maybe you are not.
It’s an unusually exciting environment to be trying to do something like digital transformation. At that point we had support from the highest levels of government and we were able to genuinely look to meet the needs of citizens and businesses and, you know, everybody in the country and everybody who is wanting to deal with the country, in the best possible way. Rather than, “Well, we can probably make it five percent better without ruffling too many feathers,” it was actually, “Let’s just rework this from the ground up and see what comes out and let’s use the best thinking and the best people from the digital sector.”
And let’s create a new kind of civil servant and a new way of doing a government department. And let’s see if we can really make government relevant to citizens. You know, just change the relationship between government and citizens. Rather than it being, “We are the authority. You must listen.”
The idea I think was, “We are here to serve you. What are your needs? What are the needs that government should be meeting and how can we best meet them? Let’s talk about it.” And you talk about it through user research and you talk about it through looking at analytics data and you talk to all the different stakeholders and you build a picture of, “What are the parameters of this? And what are the opportunities here? And what could we do differently? And how differently can we do it?”
And then we do it and then we test it and we keep changing it in that kind of agile fashion until it genuinely is in line with the user needs.
One of the things that organizations have difficulty with is the notion that their users or customers aren’t “everybody”. But a government needs to meet the needs of all its citizens. How did the Government Digital Service address that?
Padma: On the one hand, it is everybody. On the other hand, one person has one need at one time that they’re trying to meet. So they may, in this moment, they may be somebody in a business looking to find out, “How do I pay my taxes properly?” In the next moment they might be trying to get planning permission for a new extension on their property and the next minute they might be finding out, “How do I deal with and who do I deal with in government because I am dealing with a relative who’s just died and I need to take care of all the things that I need to take care of.”
Although on the one hand there is everybody, on the other hand, there is a person in a particular state with a particular need at a particular time. And if you can meet that need and understand that person, then you’re not dealing with everybody. You’re dealing with one particular user. And then you can broaden that out to an extent to this user type, you know, or this person in this particular context, in this particular space, in their life, in this particular mode.
Blaine: The notion is that you might actually be talking to all citizens, but they all become subsets depending on their unique context.
Padma: And when you understand the subset, when you understand their mental model in trying to deal with this particular issue at this particular time, and you can organize your content and structure it and structure the whole user journey for them in a way that fits with that mental model, they will have an intuitive experience. They will have a good, positive, easy experience of dealing with your content and they will be able to do the thing that they need to do.
Quite often people are in pretty stressed out states, you know, this is serious stuff. This is, “I’ve just lost my job,” or, “I’ve just received this bill and I don’t know how to pay or who to pay it. And it says that I’m going to get fired if I don’t pay it.”
It’s about how do we make it as least stressful as possible. You know, how do we make it as fast and as easy and as nonjudgmental and as “un-powertrippy” as possible so that you as a citizen are served by your government and you can just get on with your life. So that this bit is as small part as possible. People don’t do this stuff for fun.
For me it’s about shortening that user’s journey, shortening the amount of content. Making it as quick and straight forward as possible.
The digital shift that created the new Gov.uk website was truly transformational. The project and the resulting website are still held up as examples of impeccable content strategy and design. I asked Padma how the content migration was approached. While migrations typically involve moving content from one system to another, Padma explained that wasn’t the case with Gov.uk. With that project, all of the old content was simply removed.
Padma: And it wasn’t even added back. It was, “Let’s look at what user needs all this content purports to meet. And if there’s a proposed user need that comes out of that, then we will interrogate it, and look at it, and look at how many people are actually visiting that page. And if there are lots of people visiting that page, there probably is a user need. So let’s find out more about that.”
And then once we’ve got the user need, we can then look at creating a content plan to meet that user need and to meet the related user needs and to start to build a site that is based on what people are actually needing rather than what we want to say or what we know about or whatever.
So you’re moving from a subject area-based site and a site that’s organized based on the way that our organization is organized, to a site that’s based on what do our users need from us and how do they need us to present that so that it makes sense to them based on their understanding of this subject area.
You know, because quite often they’re not experts and even when they are experts that’s not to say that they have the same way of thinking about it as an expert who’s on the other side of the fence.
But the work doesn’t stop there. Once the new Gov.uk website was up and running, there was a necessity to shift into an operational mode to maintain the newly designed content, making adjustments as necessary, and to create new content to meet the changing needs of the audience.
Padma: I think the question comes down to who should be giving it the attention and how much should that attention cost, how much is content worth?
I think there’s a general story in the way that people have dealt with their content in organizations where the web was a relatively new thing. Somebody said, let’s have a website. Most people thought, well, what’s the point of that? But somebody was enthusiastic so they let them do the website and that person was the web person. And then it became clear that the Internet is, uh, actually gonna probably stick around and people seem to be taking it seriously. So maybe we should too.
So let’s get that person, a couple of colleagues and they can be the web team and then the, it becomes clear that actually if we’re going to do this properly, properly, it’s going to be really expensive.
So maybe rather than thinking about how to do that well, what we should do is we should just give everyone around the organization publishing rights and they can write the stuff that they know about. Because everybody knows how to write, obviously. And they can just hit publish and it will just magically work. Everything will be on the website so any user who needs anything will be able to find it.
And it will be practically free because we already employ these people.
And that’s where a lot of organizations are at right now.
And it doesn’t work. Because what happens is people write and write and write and they forget about the things they wrote six months ago that is no longer relevant. They don’t think about what’s already up there and they write more that’s pretty much the same.
And before you know it, the website is growing several thousand pages a year. There’s duplicate content everywhere. Users can’t find anything and it becomes eventually a crisis.
At that point, you have, as an organization, you have a decision to make. And quite often the decision is, “Oh, let’s have a new content management system.” But really you need to fundamentally rethink your content ops model. Which means that you need a content strategist to come and properly think about it. And you also need to commit some proper money.
What seems to work well is a kind of hub-and-spoke model. You know, you can’t have a central team doing everything. There’s never enough money for that. But you need a central team and that central team needs to be the people who are responsible for the quality of the site and the structure of the site and the user experience. Because they should be the specialists in user experience.
Blaine: Now that circles us back to something that you talked about right at the beginning of our conversation. And that is groups like this content team that is at the hub of the spokes having all of the responsibility but none of the authority
Padma: The worst case scenario is that that team, no matter how specialist it is or no matter how passionate it is, is treated by the organization as basically publishing monkeys and they’re right at the end of the process. And their job is essentially to take the draft content that comes to them from wherever and put it on the Internet and hit publish.
That’s the worst case scenario.
Whereas actually what needs to happen is anything that comes in from the organization, the first question is, “Is there a user need for this?”
The second question is, “How do you know there’s a user need for this? What’s your evidence?”
And then the next stage is whatever it is that’s been written is source material. You should expect this content to be fundamentally reworked based on a content designer’s understanding of content design. Or a UX professional’s understanding of UX.
And the organization should get used to not having somebody there to hit publish, but having somebody there who they can work with to create great content that works for users.
Solving this problem requires reflection on the various roles and responsibilities that can be assigned to content.
Padma: There’s a need to split out subject matter expertise from content expertise in terms of content ownership. You know, quite often subject matter experts in an organization get called the content owners. I think that you need a fundamental shift away from that. So actually they can they own the facts and the content team or the UX team or however you’re organized, they own the user experience, and together they own the content. Without that fundamental split being agreed at the highest levels in the organization, anything that you want to do is always compromised.
I think that in large organizations where you’ve got job descriptions and you’ve got performance appraisals and all that sort of thing that needs to be thought about, because when you come for your performance review, if you can say, “There was no new content published this year from our department. All the user needs were met and we didn’t do a thing.” And you get a big thumbs up for that. That is really important.
Whereas if you, in order to look like you’re performing, you need to say, “Oh, yes, we published another 20 things this year, whether there’s a need for it or not.” That responsibility shouldn’t be with them. The goal should be to meet user needs and to keep meeting user needs not to publish things.
Blaine: I love that notion that success could actually be not creating content.
Padma: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, and that’s kind of uncomfortable for organizations initially. “Oh, we need to be broadcasting. We need to be telling people stuff. We need to be creating a noise.”
That kind of old style “drown people in the message and eventually they’ll get it” way of doing things just doesn’t work in digital. To be confident enough to do nothing when nothing needs to be done is part of becoming a mature digital organization, I think.