Watch the words on your Web site

Von Stephen Bell

Although the emphasis in Web sites is often placed on graphic design, Irish web design expert Gerry McGovern cautions not to forget about the writing -- indeed, he says, give primary status to the words.

McGovern gave this warning in the opening keynote to government-sector developers and users assembled at the Govis conference last week.

The major recent trends in information dissemination are the website, the blog, cell phone texting and email, he says. ?What connects those up is writing.?

Written language is the dominant feature of the ?content? rated as such a crucial factor in government?s digital strategy and, indeed, of management in any sector, McGovern says. ?Management has progressed from the old style of walking and talking to reading and writing.? This writing is increasingly in electronic form of one kind or another, he says,

?Content has two objectives; that the person seeing it should know something that they didn?t before, and that they should feel more inclined to act -- to do something based on the content they have received.?

Yet these essential properties of the text on websites are very rarely practically tested. ?We don?t know who?s read it and who?s acted on it.?

McGovern cites Microsoft as one company that has changed its thinking hugely on this point. ?There used to be a huge amount of documentation with their products, they made an effort to say something about every feature.? Now the company concentrates on essential documentation up-front and adds to it in a continuous way as needed. ?Some functions need no help; some need a lot.?

With website content, he says, there is definite overkill, assisted in government?s case particularly by a drive towards openness. ?It?s great to have a Freedom of Information Act; what we need now is a Freedom from Information Act.?

This is not a technical or political issue, but a publishing issue. ?People who decide what information to put in and what to leave out should not be seen as censors keeping information away from the public. They?re a respected occupation known as editors.? [Cheers. The whisky is on its way ?Ed.]

His Govis address, like last year"s presentation to the Institute of Management and Computer Society, proceeded to an assault on delinquent websites. He imagined an intending immigrant to New Zealand trying to find information on whether his job skills were needed in the country. He went through a sequence of promising links on the Ministry of Social Development employment service site finding plenty of verbiage about the thriving economy and the attractions of various regions, but nowhere a simple list of what occupations are most in demand.

?The web is not supposed to be a murder mystery where you try to figure out clues," McGovern said; the information that enables someone to act should be up-front. "Kill the happy-talk.?

Having pertinent text means going out and talking to the public who will be using the site, he says. He told of a newspaper editor who spent four days of every working week out of the office talking to contacts and readers; when he moved to editing a website he was able to spend less than one day a week out of the office because of the effort of ?putting up content? on the site.

He repeated some lessons he?s given local audiences before about consistent design; this time the Medsafe site, came in for criticism for putting its links on circles scattered around the home-page, not on the standard list on the left-hand side.

At this point McGovern began to retread some familiar material, and should perhaps take one of his own stories on board about the bowl of fruit left on a hotel reception desk until it rotted -- a lesson to update website (or speech) content frequently.

In answer to a member of the audience, he agreed there is a role for stable information on some sites, ?You need an archival strategy where material is of historical or legal value. But archiving demands a different strategy from publishing.?