Content is critical (Part 1)

On the Web, content is indeed critical. If we need more convincing of this statement, we only have to throw a cursory glance at current events. Content is driving the conversation. Content is leading to action. Content is critical.

Sarah Winters defined the term ‘content design’ in the early days of GOV.UK, where she led the award-winning content team in the design of the UK government website. For me, GOV.UK is one of the shining lights when it comes to true and genuine quality Web design and management. GOV.UK has shown what online government for the people, rather than for the politicians, can be like, by being functional, evidence-based, rigorously tested, clear and useful.

Discussing with Sarah the digital response by governments, in particular, to the COVID-19 pandemic, she sums it up with the phrase ‘panic publishing’. “With the pandemic,” Sarah states, “we’ve seen organizations go from user-centered design, usability, search engine optimization, and all of those things, back to what it was ten years ago of panic publishing—just get it out.”

Of course, there are exceptions. I have worked with government health web teams in Ireland for a number of years now and, often inspired by GOV.UK, they have followed an evidence-based, quality-driven approach. I’ve seen great work happen in Canadian government, and the approaches of the UK NHS and the New Zealand health response, from what I can see, were functional and effective.

“We got rid of it!” someone from a health organization wrote to me. “Finally, after years of effort, we got rid of it.” They had got rid of something that had been around for many, many years. Whenever there was flu season, whenever there was a Bird Flu or Swine Flu or COVID-19 pandemic, this piece of content always appeared without fail. Finally, they got rid of it. They got rid of the stupid, space-wasting image of someone blowing their nose.

It was not simply about getting rid of a stupid, useless, cliché image. It reflected an organizational sea change, a cultural transformation away from waffle and organizational propaganda towards useful, functional information. Away from ministers releasing stupid, vain press releases about how concerned they were. Away from awful content waffling on about how the government was investing so much money (not their money—taxpayers’ money) in solving the problem. Away from all the guff, and the huff and the puff.

So, many organizations have made really good progress over the last ten years in relation to delivering critical content in a findable and usable manner. However, when the pandemic hit, many slid backwards, many fell off the wagon. “The problem that we’re seeing is that organizations don’t have a strong enough foundation,” Sarah states. “They don’t have a good enough content strategy that tells them when to publish and when not to. What success is. What value is. And I mean, not traffic. Traffic is a vanity metric. Don’t do it.”

The metrics drive the behaviors. The organizations that chase traffic chase garbage. It’s the Cult of Volume. And in a pandemic, what good is volume? “Oh! Look! Our traffic has exploded!” says the Web manager for a government health website. What are they going to do for traffic after the pandemic? How in any sane or logical world is traffic a good metric for a government health website?

Sarah Winters: How COVID-19 drove panic publishing