Policies. You may not have noticed, but we have many on the website. Not only policies but other types of company information such as procedures, regulations, disclaimers, reports, rules, statutes, models, codes of conduct, classification schemes, privacy notices – stay with me, this gets much more interesting, the I promise.
This university, like all the others, produces mountains of this stuff. How we handle this type of content is something this team has been concerned about recently.
Take a random sample of university websites and you will be lucky to find instances of institutions that feature clear, accessible, well organized and structured policy content. We want to change this. However, it’s not without its challenges.
There’s a view that it’s typically the content that people care the least about. Why is this?
It is typically verbose with long sentences and dense paragraphs. The legalese nature of the content often makes it the opposite of plain English. It is commonly the result of committees which, to be blunt, are boring.
But boring content can have its uses.
Boring content is often important content.
Boring content it matters.
It is important that publicly funded institutions and organizations (and universities fall into this category) are transparent about how they operate and are governed. This means that elements such as policies and procedures must be published on the website. And kept up to date.
From the user’s point of view, corporate information can also be important content. This is especially true when something goes wrong or perhaps something changes in a person’s circumstances.
It is worth considering the emotional state of a user when trying to find a policy on a website. An employee who is anxious and worried about changes in their personal life can become even more upset if they fail to find a work-life balance policy for their organization.
When policies matter to website users, they tend to be Truly question. And the frustration people feel when they can’t locate information easily only adds to what is already a stressful situation.
Don’t make me think
The information architecture of traditional organizational websites often forces users to navigate and understand the organizational hierarchy to access crucial information such as policies. They unknowingly make it difficult for users by posting siled information across the website.
Improving how users find this content is part of our challenge. Another is to make it easier to recognize and understand the content when they encounter it.
Imagine a user journey as a series of pages through a website leading to a landing page, in this case a policy. A person will make quick assessments of those pages based on how well suited they are to completing their goal. In an interesting behavioral study by Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card, this was compared to animals foraging for food, they called it « information gathering‘.
« Each source of information emits a ‘scent,’ a signal that tells the collector how likely it is to contain what it needs. »
Universities have not been particularly good at providing clear indicators in content that help users toforage’ for information successfully and they know it when they see it. This is especially true for political content, often because very little attention or thought is given to how it will be portrayed on a website and how people will interact with it. The publishing process often ends when the content is finalized in Word and saved as a PDF which is then uploaded to the web. Reliance on PDFs means that a print mentality still dominates how policies are consumed in a digital medium.
Poorly structured policy content often forces the user to read or scan the entire content before they can decide if it is the information they were looking for. Summaries in plain English are a rarity. Labels such as policy, procedure, statement and regulations are used interchangeably with little consistency and thus rendered meaningless. There is little to no attempt to think about how this type of information maps to a person’s mental model of the different types of topics they might cover.
What are we doing
Clearly there are lessons we can learn to improve the overall user experience of business information.
To ensure that this content is searchable on the new University website, we have structured it using a content type called « company information ». A content type is basically a reusable collection of fields in our content management system (you will likely come across content types for ‘course’, ‘guide’, ‘structure’, ‘story’ and others as you browse through your new website of the University). Structuring content based on content types has many benefits, but the most obvious to users is that it allows them to narrow their search to a specific type, in this case « business information. »
Content types combined with the power of taxonomies allow us to categorize content. In this case we have created the three underlying taxonomies that refer to corporate information.
Company information type
Since we use « business information » as a broad enough brush for all types of compliance or procedural content, this taxonomy provides a way to segment them into different types. ‘Policy’, ‘procedures’ and ‘disclaimer’ are just some of them.
Company information category
The category taxonomy gives us the ability to associate items with broader subject areas. Think of the anxious employee in the scenario I highlighted earlier, instead of trying to understand our organizational hierarchy which they may view a list of all work-life balance policies from our website search
‘Group’ is one of the terms you will see a lot on the new website as it links many different types of content. A group represents a part of the organizational structure of the University – for example a school or a management and, within these, departments, services, etc. A group will have the responsibility of a policy so that it can be indicated to the user in the contents.
These three taxonomies combined give users some very flexible ways to filter content.
There is a heavy reliance on the presentation of policies and related content on organizations’ websites (including this one) in PDF format. There are many reasons for this. The source document for a policy is often a versioned word document, and as mentioned earlier, it is easy to export to PDF. Policies are sometimes lengthy and often contain design elements that make more sense when printed than viewed in a browser. PDF is often assumed to be a better format because the user will print and then read the content.
PDFs are a hard habit for organizations to break, but the new digital accessibility requirements it should make many think about that addiction.
As a university, we are now required by law to ensure that our digital content is accessible to as many people as possible. All content (including PDFs) should be accessible to people with:
- impaired vision
- motor difficulties
- cognitive disorders or learning difficulties
- deafness or hearing problems
PDFs are not a particularly accessible format. Documents must be marked up to ensure that people using screen readers can navigate the content and identify sections, headings and images. It’s often a jarring experience with users presented with non-browsable content and layouts that only make sense when printed.
We should think carefully before adding a PDF to a policy and ask whether it would be possible to provide the same information as part of the page content rather than as a download.
We are now working with key contacts across the university to migrate existing content to the new website. Equally important, we are starting to define the guide for publishing company information. User testing and staff feedback will obviously be key as we do this. The end result should be policies and other types of corporate information that are easier to find, more readable, and more accessible.