For: Government Online 99 by IQPC, 10 November 1999, Sydney
Draft 2.0, 5 November 1999: http://www.tomw.net.au/papers/bpt.html
Presentation will also be available
Building Project Team for Web Development
Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra
Tom Worthington, will look at issues in setting up a team to develop a web site. Now an independent IT consultant and author, Tom will talk about his experience as the first web master for the Department of Defence, coordinating a web site with the US 7th Fleet, two federal ministers, the AIIA, National Press Club and the ACT Government.
Web design is a relatively new activity. Even new technology based communications media, such as television, have had decades to develop techniques, rules of thumb and bodies of professional skills. Approaches to TV evolved from the cinema and radio. Similarly web techniques are evolving from those of the print media, TV and radio. However, to this the web adds a rapidly evolving set of capabilities, the potential to combine all previous media and of data processing applications. What skills do people need for web work and how are those people brought together to function as a team?
The major issue for web team development is balancing the IT technical skills required with creative skills. There is a constant tension between a technically efficient implementation and one which looks good. This tension is made worse by the lack of development of aesthetics for web pages. These are currently being derived from computer games, print media and TV. It is usually very obvious from a causal glance at a web site as to which discipline the designer came from.
One approach is to rely on tools to provide the technical framework, into which the creative flair is poured. The problem with this approach is that current frameworks, such as those provided by web authoring tools, are limited and generally technically inefficient in their use of system resources.
Web design requires both technical and artistic skills. Until there are sufficient people trained by cross-discipline courses, this will require separate staff. These staff need to be brought together at the start of the project and got used to working together. This is to avoid later technical v artistic arguments.
Web development and operation is ideally suited to contracting out. Any, or all, stages of the processes can be contracted out. The major mistake made is to outsource to your IT supplier, who probably doesn't have the required skills.
Web design can be carried out by a remotely located team, interacting with the organisation via voice and e-mail. The web server can be remotely located, or locally located but remotely maintained.
Teams of in-house and external staff are particularly effective. Having the contract staff remotely located my reduce some tensions whit in-house staff, provided the means of communication and expected response time are clearly understood. Of course the usual issues with any form of outsourcing apply (Dennis 1997).
It is important to make any special requirements clear to external providers. As an example commercial web developers are generally unaware of the requirements of government for security, accountability and universal access (Ausinfo 1999).
A looming problem for government organisations is access to their pages by disabled users (HREOC 1999). It is relatively simple to add features to web pages to make them suable by those with talking or touch web browsers (Bobby 1999 and W3C 1999). This may some require some minor trade-offs in functionality. These features can also help users with slow links, older equipment and those using languages other than English.
Commercial organisations are reluctant to incorporate these use-ability features, despite the small cost, because they represent small market and one which may not have a high disposable income. However, Government agencies have a political and legal requirement to do so. Many are failing to meet their obligations, creating a high political and legal risk. This is not a new or unforseen problem, with public policy issues being explored before the web was widely implemented by government (Clarke 1994)). Some of the issues can be traced back to the previous century (Standage 1998).
The bad news is that web development combines the permanency of print material with the immediacy of TV. This creates a tension between security and flexibility. There is pressure to get material on-line quickly, but the penalty for the wrong information going out can be severe (Worthington 1998).
The best way for the web team to deal with security is to give the problem to someone else. Senior management need to decide what level of flexibility is required. Procedure usually exist in organisations for oth3er forms of communication and can be easily adapted.
The web was designed to be decentralised. This creates both a problem and an opportunity. There is a need for an organisation to present a coherent, consistent message. However, there is also the need to get timely information out quickly.
The web should not be seen as one communications medium, but as many. Some communication should be centralised, such as the provision of copies of media releases from a specific part of the organisation. However, other functions can be left to the relevant operational area.
While guidelines for design can be provided, it should be understood that there will be variations from this.
In drafting the Defence Department's web guidelines I tried to provide a balance between centralism and chaos. This was also designed to suit the organisational structure and culture of the organisation (Worthington 1998b).
In considering a team for web design, don't just think of one group of people in the corporate headquarters. Think of those people spread throughout the organisation who prepare material for distribution. It is better to include them in the deliberations at an early stage, than have them feel isolated and work against the corporate strategy.
The evolutionary approach has the web incorporated into existing communications and IT strategies. However, the web also provides the opportunity to make radical changes to business processes.
It may be decided to have the web team work in opposition to existing staff, rather than with them. The organisation may do this to change outdated work practices, in order to survive in a fast changing world.
One radical change I was involved with was the provision of media releases and speeches. Before the web these were only provided readily to external members of the media. They were occasionally delivered late to internal people and occasionally to non-media outsiders. However, the web created opportunity to distribute speeches and media releases to anyone who wanted them. This change could not be made by the staff responsible for existing distribution and required putting the material on-line from scanned paper copies obtained by less than official means.
It should not be assumed that policy and procedures come ready-made from above. Web teams may have to, on occasions invent new approaches, to exploit the technology (Worthington 1999).
PR and publishing units in organisations are two of the areas which it would be assumed have the most affinity with the web, but in practice have provided the most difficult to deal with. This is because the web forces con vergence, bringing together what were previously separate functions.
The PR area in an organisation is used top dealing with a small number of senior staff and external media representatives. The club like atmosphere is seriously threatened by the web's egalitarian approach to information distribution.
Internal publishing units see themselves as the natural owners of the corporate web site, but have difficulty grasping the change in paradigm required.
A very large shock is in store for designers of web pages: next year's hot new browser will have less of everything. The latest, hot new computers will have less processing capacity, less memory, smaller, lower resolution screens and poorer input devices. Chunky looking old text web pages will be back in fashion.
The hot new term in the Internet world is WAP: Wireless Application Protocol (WAP 1999). This is a set of standards to allow wireless devices to operate on the Internet. These devices could be intelligent mobile telephones or Portable Digital Assistants (PDAs) with a wireless modem. There are also larger devices, such as sub-notebook PCs, web telephones and web TV which have common features with WAP devices.
WAP was developed to address a number of limitations with portable devices:
Small or no keyboard
limited processing capacity and memory
WAP provides a set of Internet-like protocols and document formats to overcome the limitations of portable devises. These limitations are similar to those for access to web pages by disabled users, those slow links, with older equipment and those using languages other than English.
Web sites which have been designed to deal with usability issues in mind will be able to be adapted for WAP devices. Web sites which have been designed by graphic artists and publishing people, without the assistance of IT professionals will be unusable.
IT professionals can help in two ways:
Designing for limited graphic screens: There is a large body of experience in the design of character based user interfaces for computer applications. This work will not be familiar to web designers, but to IT professionals. That experience can be applied to WAP design.
Separating content from format: One of the skills of the IT profession is data analysis. This provides techniques for discovering the underlying structure of information, which is hidden beneath its surface e appearance. This structure can then be separated from the representation of the data. Different representations, such as text and graphics, can then be applied to the same data. This allows different interfaces to be applied to the same information for conventional Web and WAP applications.
Worthington, T. (1998) Defence and Government on the Web - Balancing public information provision with security, for Optimising Open Source Information, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, 7 October 1998
Worthington, T. (1998b) World Wide Web Warriors - Knowledge Management at The Australian Department of Defence, AIC Electronic Document Management 1998 Conference, 29 June 1998 Sydney & 21 July 1998 - Auckland
Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University. He is an electronic business consultant, author and information technology professional, with 17 years experience in information technology, including nine years on high level IT policy and five in Internet applications.
Reprinted in “Projects and Profits”, Volume 111:9, September 2003, ICFAIPRESS, URL: http://www.icfaipress.org/newpress/903/pp.asp
Presentation will also be available