9 January 2012
Two things have come onto my radar recently which, while different in context and origin, reveal a common underlying mindset.
Shortly before Christmas, Sutton Council published a set of 43 photos on Flickr and linked to them from the top of its homepage. The photos show historical Christmas scenes from Sutton around 100 years ago that have been acquired and scanned by the borough archives. Each photo is defaced with two or three watermarks of the council’s logo.
Merton Council recently published a 98-page planning consultation document. It’s available as a PDF file (13 MB PDF). The document doesn’t contain an active table of contents so it’s hard to navigate to the section you want. Worse, all the maps within the document are rotated 90 degrees and are effectively impossible to read from a screen unless you happen to be lying down.
The common factor? You wouldn’t get away with this anywhere else but online.
Try producing a leaflet or a book with watermarked photos and see how long your local government career lasts. How about a map rotated by 90 degrees pinned to a noticeboard? What would that say about your council and your consideration for people who might want to read it?
Yet we tolerate this kind of thing online because… what? Internet people don’t mind looking at defaced photos? Internet people don’t mind lying down to read a planning document? Internet people are a different species with lower standards and quieter voices?
The internet is not a rehearsal and government needs to stop treating it as one. There may be times when the urgency to put something online might trump fine attention to production values but those occasions are rare. It’s hard to see how that’s the case in either of these two examples. With Sutton’s photos, adding the logo watermarks took extra time and effort that would have been better spent removing defects from the scans rather than introducing new ones. Merton’s planning document is presumably the result of many months’ work. An extra hour adding bookmarks for each section and rotating the maps correctly is the difference between a document that’s readable (and therefore, read) and one that’s not. Don’t know how to do that? Don’t have the right software? Sort it out. You’ll be doing plenty more of them.
The internet is the pre-eminent communications medium of our time. Getting it right might require new skills but it also requires adhering to old values. Websites, online photo galleries and PDFs have been with us for many years now and they aren’t going to go away. It’s worth investing in the skills and tools to make the most of them.
Publishing online might be relatively cheap but producing the content isn’t. Your visitors’ time is incredibly valuable. Think of all the other things they could be doing rather than visiting your website or reading your document. If you’d take the trouble to get a magazine or a leaflet or a poster right, take the same amount of trouble to get your web content right. After all, it’s the same people who are going to be reading it.
Adrian Short works to get people the information they need, when they need it, in a way that they can understand.