UPDATE: Congratulations to the team in DG Enlargement on receiving a Clear Writing Award! A great endorsement of your hardwork!
On 16 October, colleagues from DG Enlargement, DG Comm and DGT, and collaborators from ESN and Namahn (contractors providing web services for Europa) came together to share the story of successful collaboration that resulted in DG Enlargement’s new website.
The meeting was organised by DGT for the purpose of distilling the maximum learning from the experience for all parties. It was informal and participatory in format, with those who had been involved in the project telling the story, as the ‘audience’ listened attentively through a number of specific filters and took notes. This not only kept everybody awake through that notorious afternoon ‘dip’ when we tend to doze off in meetings, it also allowed us to capture some very valuable learning points, which we would like to share with you here on Waltzing Mathilda.
DGT goes fishing - In October 2008, DGT’s web editing team sent an email to the Internet Editors in all the Commission’s DGs, offering our services at any time they were contemplating revamping their websites.
DG ELARG responds – in early 2009, DGT’s web editors were invited to give some workshops on Writing for the Web to colleagues providing content to the website. At the same time, we edited the country page for Albania as an example of what was possible, reducing the page from a lengthy narrative to a pithy sentence with a few bullet points. Sadly, the proposed new-look country page was not found acceptable: it was a step too far at that time. Nevertheless, it has since become the template for all country pages on the website.
The Red Line ‘incident’ – relations between DGT’s web editors and the ELARG web team weren’t always easy, though: there have been (and continue to be) a number of discussions concerning some ‘terminological infelicities’ forced by diplomatic sensitivities: certain ‘red lines’ could not be crossed. Nevertheless we always kept talking, and the trust built by this open communication has stood the project in good stead.
Gerry McGovern speaks to management – In 2010, Catherine Wendt was recruited to head up ELARG’s communication unit. Her Director General instructed her, categorically, to do something about the website. With blessing from the highest level (and the budget to back it up), the team began to look around for help. “In the beginning”, she explained, “we didn’t really know what we wanted. It made sense to turn to people with experience.” Two critical decisions gave shape to the revamp project:
- Web visionary Gerry McGovern was invited to speak to ELARG management about why websites must focus on users’ tasks. Gerry spoke first to senior managers behind closed doors and then to the rest of the DG. Gerry’s signature mix of brutal honesty and irresistible Irish charm convinced the hierarchy that backing the revamp was the only intelligent thing to do.
- ELARG Internet editor Luka Sodja called in the DGT web editors to collaborate on designing and implementing the revamp.
The revamp gets underway – In the early stages, DG COMM’s Europa team lent valuable support in the form of:
- the Europa inventory – this showed that ELARG’s current website weighed in at 1200 pages (of which 300 were web pages – the rest were pdfs)
- user testing – this shattered DG ELARG’s fond imaginings that its website received many visits from journalists, the reason why they provided a daily news item. User testing clearly showed that actual users tended to be public officials, students and academics – and hardly a single journalist!
Armed with real data about the obesity of their site and the users they needed to serve (not the general public), Luka, Catherine and deputy unit head Vincent Rey sat down with the DGT editors to lay down the first impressions of the new home page. The more they homed in on the real added value of the site (providing information that only DG Enlargement could provide, about the state of play of accession negotiations – and not general information about the candidate countries), the more the design effortlessly fell into place.
The layout, navigation and labels evolved over several iterations before they were fleshed out by the ESN team (on contract for the project). Content for each page was either dredged from existing pages, merged from multiple sources or written from scratch, through collaboration between the DGT web editors , the ELARG web team and content providing desk officers. Once the content was stable, DGT’s web translators translated the site into French and German.
Reduced from the initial 300 pages to 72 (plus 20 pages of glossary), the site went live, modestly and without fanfare, in September 2012.
What we can learn from this story about the steps to a successful revamp
Know what you want before you start
Base your web strategy on user research – the inventory of Europa websites can tell you the number of pages on your website and give you overall visitor statistics. Web analytics can tell you a lot about who is coming to your site, and which pages are most popular.
Identify who your readers really are: avoid creating content for “target audiences” that do not actually visit your site.
Identify key tasks: what do your clients want from your website? Get clear about the added value of your specific site. What is it that the world would lose if your site didn’t exist? Concentrate on delivering your unique value and avoid duplicating content found alread on other related sites (add links there instead).
Consider user testing to ensure that your site is usable. DG Comm offers a monthly usability lab where you can take your projects for feedback, and it also offers a framework contract for serious user testing. If you have several clearly different user groups, you might need different websites to cater to their needs.
Which languages should your website be in? This is not always a straightforward decision and deserves serious thought. Your choice will depend (among other things) on your audience. If you already have a multilingual website, your site statistics can show you how much traffic the different languages actually get.
DGT can help you decide on the most appropriate language policy for your site, and help you navigate the translation process (see the section on translation below).
Know who can help you with what:
- DGT web editors can help you define your specific value, refine your navigation and labels, produce web-suitable content.
- DG COMM’s Europa team can help you with user testing and recommend you the best external contractors for your needs.
Get others on board
To get ownership, don’t outsource the whole project. Rather than contracting out your website, keep the process in-house and contract external expertise for specific tasks.
Involve senior management. Consider inviting an external speaker with clout and credibility (Gerry McGovern and Lou Rosenfeld have both provided this service). Inform management about key milestones in the process and get approval for each crucial step. Explain the strategic choices to be made along the way, and don’t let them change their minds later in the process about decisions they’ve already made. Encourage your managers to support you by trusting you to do your job well. Don’t let them micro-manage!
Raise awareness in your department. Show good examples of edited texts/revamped sections. This can help convince both colleagues and decision-makers to structure a site/page properly. Offer your content providers training in writing for the web. (DGT can run presentations and workshops tailored to your needs). Back up your approach with evidence from user testing – this can help colleagues who are content experts to let go of their attachment to having all their detailed information up online. Find other ways to ensure that your colleagues feel valued, without needing their content to be on the homepage when it doesn’t belong there!
Design and architecture
Work with visualisations (e.g. wireframes, mockups) – this helps to make explicit many assumptions about look, feel and navigation that might otherwise lead to costly misunderstandings down the line.
Get results quickly: go for rapid prototyping with many iterations – don’t be tempted into spending time seeking perfection from the start. Instead of a formal process, take an agile, participatory approach. Consider investing in co-design workshops (contractors like Namahn can provide these).
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use existing templates where appropriate (e.g. DG Comm’s standard feedback form).
Have an experienced web editor with good ideas about what is needed and a deep understanding of what works on the web. The DGT Web editors can help you. Ensure that all texts are OK’d by the editor immediately before publication – especially if content is validated by non-native-speaker subject experts.
Language: use language people will understand without effort. Avoid alienating language (e.g. too much in-house or euro-centric jargon). Being clear about who your actual readers are really helps in this regard! Be aware of diplomatic sensitivities around language and terms, but do go the extra mile to achieve clear and natural language.
Use a template for all content, and add metadata immediately as content is written. DG Comm/DGT can help you with this, but it’s worth sitting down with your content providers to ensure the right metadata is included.
Good content is: up-to-date, accurate, and minimal. Then you can manage it properly. Remember, the smaller your website, the greater the traffic and the higher the user satisfaction!
Manage the translation of your website as a project in its own right
Plan enough time for editing, validation and proofreading the site in English before launching translation. Leave room for editorial discussion with DGT. At this stage, it’s advisable to work in Word, not XML.
Plan a time safety margin. If you are working with external contractors, be aware that your revamp is bound to take longer than you think. To avoid headaches, make sure that translation is factored in X months (depending on volume of text) before the end of the contract!
Have a content migration plan. For seamless migration, create the master site in English, then use xml files for translation, using your new sitemap as a basis.
If pressed for time, define priorities and publish in phases – for example, publish all stable, fixed content first.
Translation is not a black box. Engage in ongoing dialogue with DGT throughout the process. Transparent dialogue during the editing phase can really help the translators to understand the subtleties of your content and provide a first class service to your readers.
And they all lived happily ever after
There is no such thing as a finished website – the future is full of continual tweaking and improvement, failing which, your initial investment is soon wasted!
In the long run, success relies on good collaborative practice, and TRUST is key:
- Don’t act until you’re clear you have a shared purpose. All parties need to know what they want to achieve. If there is no overlap in goals, reconsider your collaboration!
- Pay attention to relationships. To get the necessary buy-in, get the whole system (from contractors to editors and translators) into the room early on, brief extensively, meet all parties regularly, invite participation.
- Stay as flexible as possible. Give preference to unstructured, informal contacts and opt for face-to-face meetings (even videoconferencing) whenever possible.
- Ensure you make clear agreements. Don’t take your expectations for granted! Get clarity about who plays which role, and whenever a doubt arises, clarify what each role is accountable for.
- Network extensively. Generously share your knowledge, experience and contacts. You never know when someone else’s information will save your life!
- Learn together. Have regular group debriefs and feedback sessions to ensure that everybody learns as you go.
- Celebrate regularly! Recognise when you’re making progress and take time to enjoy it.