There is nothing more powerful than a bad idea that’s time has come, to paraphrase author Robert Rankin, and so it was that I found myself launching into a part-time Masters just a few days after my eldest son’s first birthday.

Now I’m out the other side I’d have to say perhaps bad idea is a bit strong, naive may be nearer the mark but boy, part-time postgraduate study, a full time job, two kids under 5, plus, you know, life – that’s a surefire way to learn the art of time management!

But nearly four years down the line I am out the other side and I can finally say I hold an MA in Online Communications. Go me! Go Derbyshire County Council for supporting me through it and being my case study! Go family for being patient and kind!

Enough of that though. What did I actually learn? Well, as you’d probably hope, I learnt LOADS. A lot of it built on the knowledge and skills I got from my undergraduate degree and 10 years of working as an online content monkey of one breed or other. But I also learnt lots of new stuff – some of it directly relating to the subject and other bits general study skills and improved critical thinking.

Let’s get to the bit that you’re really interested in (and I think if you’ve read this far you must be at least a little interested) – the dissertation.

“How does evaluating web content and creating web content strategy help local government to meet the principles of eGovernment and achieve organisational goals? A case study of Derbyshire County Council’s website ‘‘”

I think there is bit much for one blog post so I’m going to round-up what I did and what I found in this one. I’ll follow up with a post about where I’ve ended up and what my feeling about next steps are.

So…what did I do (and what did I want to do if I’d had more time / a bigger brain)?

  • I did a sort of hybrid content audit / heuristic evaluation of a content sample of the website. This was about 350 page in total. Three hundred made up one complete section (Your Council) and the others related to the top tasks (most visited areas) of the site.
    I audited against ten heuristics and the Your Council section I did on my own, while I enlisted the help of a few kind localgov peers to review the top tasks alongside me to increase the validity and reliability of the study. Ideally I would have had three reviewers take on the whole site.
  • The heuristics analysed the content against three eGovernment principles – access to information (how easy was it to find); transparency (how easy was it to understand or use); and efficiency (does it support channel shift and efficiency in terms of cost and resource). I heartily recommend Jakob Nielsen as a starting point if you’re not familiar with heuristics.
  • The heuristics also looked at elements of user-experience and usability (hello Neilsen again) and standards the council already had in place such as a style guide.
  • Ideally I’d have collected other data during the audit so a content gap analysis could be carried out and in some sort of time-rich brainiac utopia I would have pulled other data in such as that from our contact centre, the user feedback we gather, results of usability testing labs etc
  • I looked at what strategies the council already had in place and what their own objectives were. The council plan objectives broadly matched the three themes of eGovernment and added detail at a local level.
  • I threw it all together and with a lot of inspiration from people forging ahead with content strategy (hat tip Kristina Halvorson here) came up with a draft web content strategy for Derbyshire County Council.

This is something we’ve started to tweak within my team and use as a working document (I’m sure my long-suffering tutor Anne-Florence DuJardin will be pleased to know the action research paradigm paid off). We’ve added detail to the strategy in terms of documenting governance of the web content and setting a roadmap with SMART objectives.

And as my findings coincided with a refresh of we were able to use the issues uncovered in the audit / heuristic evaluation, alongside usability testing and other research, to really tighten up great swathes of the content so it was more UX / customer focused (and we also had a clear view of some areas which needed ditching entirely).

I think that gives a very brief summary of what was done and what was found. I think the what it means is best left for another day but my conversations with Devon County Council’s Carl Haggerty (although they came after my dissertation submission date) summed up how local gov is (or needs) to move away from thinking about web as a platform and toward letting the content and customer access be at the forefront. You can read his excellent blog post on his thoughts here.

I’ll finish with a few thank yous to people who really deserve it for either putting up with me studying, actively helping with the research or just giving me some encouragement when I whined on Twitter about how hard I was finding things. In no particular order:

My husband and our two wonderful little boys; Derbyshire County Council but particularly my team (eContent, yeah!) and the rest of Public Relations; local government epic visionaries Al Smith, Ally Hook, John Fox, Carl Haggerty, Martin Black and Charlotte Stamper; Anne-Florence DuJardin; the Thumbs Up Girls (and Take That); Janet Davis; Nick Hill; pretty much my whole Twitter timeline; and fellow local gov academic types Michele Ide-Smith, Liz Azyan and Simon Whitehouse.

*dragged crying from the podium Oscars acceptance speech style*

I’m really excited about developing the content strategy further alongside other existing and new strategies for the council and making the content really hit the mark for visitors. Two years of hard study and I feel like I’m only just starting to scratch the surface…and that is *really* exciting!

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