Tuesday, February 13, 2007

survey in need of usability

Kudos to the City of Seattle (and partners) for launching the Seattle Civic Engagement Project. In terms of what it's up to, so far it seems to want to broaden the outreach methods of current engagement. Specifically:

Partners are encouraged to expand their current methods of communication by creating opportunities to talk about issues with friends, family, and colleagues, to listen respectfully to their opinions and to contribute their own. Then members are asked to complete a simple web 'Opinionnaire,' designed to determine levels of agreement or disagreement around the issues. This process is not a scientific poll, but is instead an opportunity to connect with others and engage people in the important community functions of civic conversation and dialogue. The results of these surveys will be shared with partners, public officials, and the media.

You can read more about it at Seattle's Brainstorm.

This sounds pretty neat, however I have some serious usability concerns with how it's all put together. First off, the videos linked from the survey page crashed one of my computers. I tried running it on a different computer with a different OS, and it white washed the screen to launch the QuickTime app. Now granted, I'm not a guru of any kind when it comes to video integration for a website, but I don't think the experience should be jarring. Embedded videos a la YouTube, SoapBox, etc provide for a much more user friendly experience.

Aside from just the video itself, burying the links in the right column seem to de-emphasize their value. If it is important for people to review, make it easy to access. Given how many websites are designed today, things in the right nav are not always reviewed as they tend to be equated with ads. Do you really want to have valuable content associated in a space commonly associated with ad space?

In terms of the survey itself, I'm concerned that the length and organization of the survey will hinder useful information. First of all, there are eight demographic questions that do not seem to relate with the specific topic (transportation). If the questions were to end the survey early, (say if you lived in Nebraska) that would be one thing, but instead they take up way too much of the focus of a would be survey respondent. I would be curious to see what the drop out rate is for survey completion -- how many people start the survey and never finish? With eight demographic questions and at least twenty-two topic specific questions, that seems like a rather large investment of time and energy for a rather complex and polarized issue. Additionally, the issue of transportation is rather complex. It seems that the survey is intended for those who already know a fair amount of the issues at hand. If this is indeed the intention, ignore my next comment, however if people want a broad dialogue, shouldn't it be as accessible as possible for the broadest audiences? I realize that time and time again Seattle is ranked among the brightest and most literate of cities, however there's something to be said for simplicity (note to self -- follow own advice).

Though it is promising to see more and more groups embrace technology, there's a lot more that can be done. I believe that the dialogue that folks are hoping for would be better served by better utilizing blogs, video clips (three to five minutes long) and podcasts (also short in duration). Additionally, tying the content to offline dialogues (formal and informal) would likely do wonders for this initiative. A discussion board may be fruitful provided that expectations are set early on in the process. Wikis would be an interesting addition to this process, however, that is not something to take on lightly given how polarized the debate on transportation has become in the region.

Ultimately though, the means of discussion (how it's transmitted, and the messages being transmitted) really need to be relevant to those not currently involved. Who is the audience that folks are attempting to reach with this current implementation? What else competes for your audiences attention, and how are those "competitors" doing? The more information you know about your audience, the better the chances for success.

Related -- see Kathy Sierra's recent post on the intersections of marketing and learning. I would suggest that those points raised are quite apt for things of a civic nature as well.

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