Feds define Web look and feel standard

Though Canada’s government is considered to be No. 1 in providing online service, visiting federal Web sites can sometimes feel like wading through a river of paper. It’s often hard to find what you’re looking for and you might have had to search through hundreds of pages of legalese to

find it – probably in a PDF file, no less.

Not surprisingly, Web developers and content managers attending a conference hosted by IQPC Canada in Ottawa recently were told their sites have to become more client-driven. If they don’t, they might risk becoming the Canadian cobwebs of the World Wide Web.

The feds hope to provide easier access to Web surfers through the Treasury Board Secretariat’s Common Look and Feel standards, a set of rules that all federal government Web sites will be expected to conform to by the end of the year. These standards should give a more uniform appearance to all government Web sites and offer better inter-connectivity between departments online.

But Fernand Cormier, IM/IT advisor for the Tax Court of Canada, says that departments need to think beyond Common Look and Feel. He says government Web sites should be offering more things that the average taxpayer can use – things like electronic forms and clear instructions on how to use them, information on the department’s procedures and processes, and an e-mail and phone number list that’s regularly updated.

Cormier says that reports, statistics or legal judgments should have a lower priority on Web sites, since they are only of interest to a handful of lawyers and other specialists.

“”Don’t publish anything before you satisfy the client’s need first,”” he says. “”If clients don’t have the need (to visit your site), they won’t have the want.””

Cormier points out that when the Tax Court launched its site in 1998, it was so jam-packed with jargon-filled documents it only initially attracted an anemic 230 hits a month. The court whittled down its content and began test piloting the use of e-forms. Since then, the site’s hit count has mushroomed and is now averaging more than 50,000 hits each month.

Bonnie Buckingham Landry, a Web editor with the Government of New Brunswick, agrees that content managers need to start thinking more like people on the street rather than public servants in order for their work to remain relevant.

“”It’s important (for Web content managers) to think about whom your audience is and how they expect to get information,”” she said. “”Don’t think about your organization and how it’s set up, and expect people on the outside to think like that. Think like your client.””

Peter Cowan, an Industry Canada content manager, says thinking like your client goes down to things like plugging unusual words into your site’s metadata, which helps search engines come up with information. For instance, he offered that some users might type “”pogey”” into a search engine instead of Employment Insurance, which would naturally affect the type or amount of information they’d receive.

“”Obviously, you can’t use slang in your metadata,”” he says, “”but you can use the technology to take into account the new words and language people are using.””

There are pitfalls to consider after a Web site has been around awhile, too. It’s easy for upper-level management to lose interest in something that appears to be running smoothly, so money and staff resources can become tight as time marches on. As a result, small details can go overlooked – a story Buckingham Landry knows all too well, much to her embarrassment.

“”In the fall, we thought one of our main Web sites was linking into other (legitimate) businesses,”” she says. “”We found out that the site had now been linked into business domain names that’d been bought up over time by pornographic Web sites. It made for some great headlines.””

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