Getting your colleagues thinking digitally

Now I’ve tricked you here with Steve Carell’s face, get reading!

If you work with websites in the charity sector, you’ve likely had that experience of colleagues & stakeholders asking you on a whim to “push that box up to the top”, throw up a link to a new PDF, or to build a new page or feature that, in their mind, solves a really important problem. You’re a bit wary as to whether it’s really necessary, or whether it’s a quick fix to appease an impulse or one, very loud, user.

We have a small digital team at Time to Change, though our site gets about 250,000 visits a year and we work with thousands of engaged stakeholders, like teachers and employers, who come to our site to download materials and resources. Because we’re small, we operate like a consultancy for the other teams in the programme, like the Children & Young People team or the Employers team, who technically ‘own’ their web pages.

These teams, forgivably, don’t have the time or expertise to think too much about their users’ experience of the site. Because of a lack of time, and because of short-term pressures, the ‘stick it up there’ mentality prevails. This leads to a lot of mission drift (if there was ever a mission) and, over time, web pages that are more like indexes than slick, compelling user journeys. Case in point:

this page brings me great shame…

I know what you’re thinking — this is just the result of a lack of strategy & direction. And you’re right. The team that owns the pages thinks one thing is important, and the digital team, the so-called ‘experts’, think another thing is important, and there’s a lack of agreement. Because strategy is hard; gaining agreement is hard. We worry that colleagues will stop listening when we use terms like ‘user journey’ and ‘user experience’, that conflict will ensue because we’re talking across each other.

How we approached this challenge

To help develop a common purpose between us and Time to Change’s other teams, I put on a workshop with all of the members of each team. (I owe a lot of this concept to UX expert Paul Boag, who ran a training course that seeded the idea about a year ago.) The idea behind this workshop is to get a grounding on the purpose behind the website (or section) without actually talking about the website at all.

Using the classic post-it/sharpie combination, we went through a number of exercises. Depending on how many audiences you need to get through, it might take 1.5–2 hours.

  1. Listing the audiences

Get your colleagues to write down all the different audiences that might use their pages on the site. It helps here to have some knowledge of their work and their audiences, so you can make sure they’re not complicating things, and so you can clarify with questions to make sure they’re on the right track.

2. Prioritising the audiences

Ask the team to discuss which audiences are most important in the context of the website. There may be really high-value audiences with a lot of influence — with our employers team, this would be CEOs— but if they’re not likely to come to our site, that should be kept in mind. Then get them to take a vote — give them a handful of stickers to distribute however they choose, to reflect which audience has the most significance to their work when it comes to the website.

Just an example guys, I’m not actually showing you our strategy

Hopefully you should start to get a consensus on which audiences hold the highest priority on the site. For the schools team, Young Champions (a small group of 18–25 campaigners) are a key audience for the team but have direct contact with a member of staff so were judged less likely to rely on the website. Teachers are also crucial, but don’t have that one-to-one support, so they had a much higher share of the vote.

3. A sort-of-empathy map

This is the fun bit, where your colleagues get to dig deep into their audiences and show off all the things they know.

Divide each audience into four quadrants, and get them to explore, in order:

  • Goals: what are the big picture outcomes they want that are driving engagement with your organisation & site?
  • Obstacles: what are the things that stop them achieving their goals? These might be external or internal, practical or emotional.
  • Tasks: what are the specific tasks that this audience want to achieve on your site?

To some extent it’s guesswork, but if your colleagues work closely with these people, they should be able to answer to these categories.

This part of the workshop requires some hawkishness: you need to politely rebut suggestions that are too broad (“to find out more” as a task, or “because they’re curious” as a goal) and you need to probe to find out whether the tasks are actually ones that the user wants to complete, or whether they are just convenient for that team/member. Encourage your colleagues to write down as many post-its as they want — it leads to a fuller picture!

Cross-referencing between the categories is helpful. If an audience has a particular obstacle, is there a task they might want to complete that could remove it? Do all the tasks correspond to a goal, and if not, should they be in there?

4. Voting again

Get the team to repeat the same voting exercise with the tasks, so that you have a picture of what the most important tasks are for each audience. Discard any tasks that don’t have any votes, and make a note of any tasks that you can’t fulfil — whether it’s out of your remit, or you don’t have the resources.

Once you’ve done the empathy map and voting for each audience (or, say, the top 3 or 4), you’ll have a really clear picture of what the team’s digital priorities are. You can use this as a resource when looking at their existing web pages, or as a touchstone when negotiating new projects. Use all of the content from the map to inform your strategy. The obstacles can help you inform the content you shape around the key tasks: if one of the obstacles is a lack of confidence, for example, then the tone of the content should be such as to build confidence.

I’ve done this exercise a few times, and each time I worry that it’ll backfire: that the team won’t buy into it, that it’ll degenerate into an argument about why they can’t have the tool they want to develop. But each time, my workshopped colleagues come out feeling positive and enthusiastic about the potential to make the most of the site.

Why? I have a couple of theories. Firstly, they are providing the expertise. You can push and prod, and make suggestions, but they are in control of what goes on the empathy maps, and they are in control of the vote — and that’s empowering. It makes use of what they’ve learned about the people they work with, and lets them feel proud of the expertise they’ve gained. As the facilitator, you just happen to be moulding that expertise into a useful structure for future use!

Also, you’re getting people past the jargon to the heart of digital work, which is empathy. The key to producing good user experience is thinking from your user’s perspective — putting yourself in their shoes. As Matt Collins has written, some of our colleagues are quick to turn away when we talk about digital — but digital is as much about understanding people as it is about tech, and this exercise helps colleagues to see that. Without even talking about any specific website pages or functions, participants come out with a better understanding of how users engage with our site.

I did a very un-British thing and asked Karen, our Employer Manager, to give me feedback on the workshop. Here’s what she said:

I found the workshop really useful. It enabled us all to determine exactly what our audience wanted from the website; it focused our thinking on the exactly what it was we needed to know as opposed to coming up with an idea of what we thought we wanted. The techniques you used enable us all to be objective and evaluate whether what we wanted was what we actually needed or what our audience needed. Otherwise we would have had a tendency to agree tasks which wouldn’t have fulfilled the need of the audiences.

I hope that speaks to the effectiveness of this workshop. I also wouldn’t count out the popularity of post-its, markers and stickers — the tactility of an exercise like this actually does get people engaged.

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