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05.04.2010: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: 'His Clerkiness' is Online

Category: user experience     Posted by: cornelius     Discuss: view comments     Views: 5926

If you haven't heard the news yet, Mr. Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet (a.k.a. 'His Clerkiness' for brevity reasons for the duration of this post) recently launched his very own slice of web real estate at http://clerk.gc.ca. Nota Bene: no disrespect is intended by using the term 'His Clerkiness', it is simply a catchy, affectionate term that has been making the rounds on Twitter about a week ago, a day before the official launch of the website.

Wayne Wouters imageOn its own, the very presence of the site marks a bit of a shift in the way the Government of Canada is interacting with its internal (PS employees) and external audience (the public at-large). A real-time Twitter feed (and not a link to a Twitter account) is prominently featured on the main page. CLF bilingualism requirements are met by way of echoing two different Twitter accounts: @WayneWouters for the English version, and @WayneGWouters for those on the other side of the Alexandria Bridge.

So far, His Clerkiness' newly adopted microblogging persona has been relatively quiet. There are only three tweets in the timeline, one announcing the launch of the website, a link to the Clerk's Annual Report and a Thank You note for those who provided feedback on the website. Well, Your Clerkiness, if you haven't received a lot of responses, consider this article my very own way of providing feedback to your new virtual endeavour.

Another relatively unusual component for a GoC CLF-compliant website that can be found on the main page is the presence of a Flash video introduction. Historically, flash video introductions have been used on social networking and blog landing pages. More recently, flash video intros have become increasingly popular within political websites. They are short, official, effective and easy to create, so kudos to His Clerkiness (and/or his communications team) for broadening the CLF spectrum. For those of you keeping track, you can find a second flash video in the How We Help section.

NO REAL ENGAGEMENT

But as it is the case with the majority of GoC websites, apart from the novel elements mentioned above, clerk.gc.ca seems to have missed on some real opportunities. While Twitter and a link to GCpedia are being used as the token social media elements, there is no paradigm showing real intent to engage the public or the public service. There is no commitment to use the site as a public service community hub, nor is there a dedicated community workspace. There are no aggregated twitter lists of PS employees managed within those Twitter profiles. No recommended social bookmarks and no YouTube channel for commentary. There are no calls to action, or a place to discuss issues. Your Clerkiness, if you are going to broadcast the use social media and act like a progressive leader, you need to at least build and manage a PS community via multiple channels, and designate community management human resources. Occasional Twitter status updates are not a social media strategy. The first step you should have taken is to sit down with your communications team and with the #w2p folks (who are currently in the middle of a joint effort to develop a social media strategy for GoC) and figure out a way to approach this endeavour. Although, it's never too late…

OPEN WALLET, NOT OPEN SOURCE

Another disappointing characteristic of clerk.gc.ca is the fact that the website is built on Microsoft ASP technology. While there is nothing wrong with the technology itself, Your Clerkiness could have made a bold statement by embracing open source and go the way of Drupal, Joomla or any other open CMS platform. This would have acknowledged the need for open standards and open source within the Government and would have made it clear that the PS is moving towards making innovative cost-effective decisions for Canadian taxpayers.

DISREGARD FOR USER EXPERIENCE

The last considerations also constitute the most recurring theme in my posts: the user experience (or lack thereof). A quick glace at the website reveals a visual layout that was rushed out the door and is reminiscent of the late 1990's. The brown hue used by the main visual elements is an unfortunate choice of primary color (removed previous statement because of subjectivity reasons, although I still think the statement is valid). The styling of right column buttons is inconsistent (eg. the ‘More’ button in the annual report box fades top to bottom from white to brown, while the 'Follow Me' button in the Twitter box underneath fades top to bottom from black to brown).

Another major user experience mishap is the lack of visual feedback for the currently selected section and item in the left side menu. This is a faux-pas that plagues a lot of government websites and its solution consists of a five minute fix of the CSS file responsible for rendering the menu items. Also, the consistency of graphics positioning on the right column is a mess (eg. the distance between the title text of the 'Latest News' box and its grey border is 2-3 times greater than the distance between the title text of the 'Twitter' box and its own grey border). Some grey boxes on the right side columns of inner pages exhibit a grey shadow effect under the top border while some don’t.

VISUAL (MIS)TREATMENT

This leads me to the point where I openly question the image processing abilities of the visual designer who worked on the clerk.gc.ca website. Any site visitor will be able to tell that the photo stitching quality of the main banner is absolutely laughable. Each sepia photo of previous Clerks is blended in using different settings. From left to right, the first photo has a large white halo, the second one has a much less noticeable halo, the third one is cropped tightly without a halo, while the last one exhibits a noticeable halo once again.

And while some of these inconsistencies may pass a quick internal review, the eyes of a trained User Experience professional will identify them immediately. Sadly, this is not an exception to the norm when it comes to Government of Canada websites, and just like I mentioned in my previous posts, unless quality and process standards are addressed in parallel with CLF compliance, this is the kind of outcome the public at-large has come to expect.

WANT SOME HELP?

Your Clerkiness, if you are interested in remedying the issues with the user experience and information architecture of your virtual presence, I would be willing to volunteer my time (absolutely free of charge) to help you out. But I sincerely doubt that your communications department would actually bring up issues with their current work in a direct conversation.

What do you guys think? Do you feel like this is a missed opportunity or do you feel like http://clerk.gc.ca is good enough?

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khaleem (06.04.2010 01:37:00) wrote:
I took a look at the Clerk's website, and I don't understand what the point of it is. Is it mainly to provide the links to his bio, speeches and annual report? Those are all available on Privy Council website as well. I'm confused. Agree with Cornelius on community management, but I think that is a little bit too progressive for our federal government.
PS. I also agree that the website looks terrible (what's up with the brown?)
steven (06.04.2010 11:17:50) wrote:
Interesting, four of your last five posts have been raining on GoC's parade. Sadly, they are points that are valid.
Keep up the good work, really enjoy the articles and refer back to them often.
Don (06.04.2010 13:25:05) wrote:
FYI - there are some french folk on THIS side of the Alexandria bridge.
cornelius (06.04.2010 14:05:53) wrote:
And so it begins... The PS backlash... @Canuckflack wrote a post on his blog about how it's ok to let the government screw up when it comes to the web and social media.

Oddly enough, the order in which I presented the issues with http://clerk.gc.ca (engagement, open source, ux, visuals) has been spun into 'using brown in your design, poor photo montage skills and lack of 'engagement' by the author. The fact that I gave props to the clerk for launching or for using Twitter is nowhere in the article. All of a sudden, PS critique is out of bounds? I wasn't aware that we became communist overnight...

He also laments that my critique is unwaranted and not very constructive. Let's recap: I point out what's wrong, and people agree. I provide a design example with possible fixes. I point out execution flaws. Because no one else seems to... The PS sure as hell isn't.

Let's be realistic, it took four posts for this thing to explode, some PS people all of a sudden identify with the issues that have been brought up and instead of addressing them they are firing back my way. You're welcome :O)

If you think the answer is for the public opinion to let you do whatever you want, take however long you want, and burn however much money you want without showing any real improvement, or taking forever to show improvement, I truly believe you're wrong. Just because you say there is internal bureaucracy and you can't move any faster, doesn't mean it's ok to largely accept failure... Most W2P folks that I met are exempted from the above comment. They seem to genuinely be interested in pushing the envelope and do risk getting slapped by dinosaurs for it. But as much as His Clerkiness' site is a positive step in some ways (which have been pointed out in the article), it is a major #FAIL in others.
cornelius (06.04.2010 18:32:24) wrote:
Funny enough, after an afternoon of various conversations about the subject, no one disagrees with what I said, but some still disagree with the fact that I said it. Yes, I questioned the quality of a website, which happens to be the site of your collective boss. It's not that big of deal. He doesn't know how to code it, create it, or add content to it. The mistakes pointed about are not made by one person but by a collective. Which now has a chance to learn from their mistakes. Let me make something abundantly clear: I didn't question Wayne Wouters' ability or his intentions, I questioned the execution of his site and to some extent the strategy behind it.

If someone took the time to post a review of my site pointing valid areas of improvement, I'd be happy. One, because my site got coverage, and two, because I have a chance to make it better. I didn't call your daddy ugly, I just said whoever's putting together your daddy's photo album is not that good at it.
SteveBuell (06.04.2010 19:25:43) wrote:
One cannot argue with your opinions. After all, that is what they are, your opinions. Neither can one, nor should one, mount or perceive any sort of "PS backlash."
An opinion, which may diverge from yours, should not be seen as as a backlash but as an alternate point of view which comes with a different perspective.
Everything done under the auspices of the GC is subject to a special level of scrutiny (as you so eloquently point out).
This is the nature of the breast we are trying to wrestle with. It should not degenerate into an "us vs. them" scenario.
I believe we are all working on the same side here. We just work under different parameters. Bridging the chasm of GC agility (oxymoron) and public expectation is one way we can effect real change.
As I said before, keep the discussion going!
cornelius (21.04.2010 14:15:13) wrote:
While I agree with the statement that what I think of the Clerk's site is my own opinion, I have added some facts that support my statement. Other than people telling me that the Clerk's site is actually great, I haven't heard any supporting evidence for that statement. Not that I think there is any :O) Having a website for the clerk is better than not having a website, absolutely. But the website he has... ugh.


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