This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in January of 2014. LSC is Legal Services Corporation, my employer.
At LSC, we’ve been taking a critical look at our web site, to see if we can make it a more useful web site by factoring in all of the ways that people might want to view or use our information. In these days of big data and small screens, we realize that we have to be much more attentive to the ways that we present data than we have in the past.
Identifying the different visitors who frequently use our site, we took a closer look at their needs, and how we could improve our delivery of information to them. For example, visitors to LSC’s web site could be:
- reporters or Hill staffers looking for a quick cut and paste of data on the site that is hard to get out of a linked PDF;
- general public looking for data to pull into a spreadsheet, who would also be disappointed to find that data in a PDF;
- visually or physically impaired, and therefore not able to view web content that isn’t compliant with the standards that their specialized software requires;
- accessing the site on a mobile device that doesn’t display flash or video and has no capability to display a PDF
The PDF Problem
Adobe has done great things with the Portable Document Format, opening it up as a public standard and continually improving the functionality of the format. But this is not an optimal format for web-based content, because PDFs require additional software in order to be viewed, and they need to be created with a solid understanding of how PDFs need to be prepared, so that they are compatible with accessibility standards. Our goal is to ensure content is delivered optimally, and in a format that makes it easy to access for anyone and everyone visiting our site.
In the past, we’ve relied heavily on publishing web content via PDF, and we now have a backlog of documents that aren’t as widely usable as we would like. Our plan is to immediately make two changes:
- Use PDF sparingly and thoughtfully as we move forward. Use PDFs as optional downloads for content that is also displayed in HTML, or as appropriate downloads for white papers and legal reports that aren’t the types of things that users will want to quote or edit; design PDFs that are compatible with the section 508 standards for web accessibility.
- Determine which of our existing PDFs need to be republished in more accessible formats and convert them. We don’t have the resources to fix everything, but we have good statistical data from Google Analytics to tell us which PDFs our visitors look at and a good idea how to prioritize this content.
As a nonprofit that allocates federal funds, we have a responsibility to make data available to the public. But a commitment to open data means more than just making the data available; it needs to be available in formats that people can easily use. Data stored in an HTML table can be copied and pasted into Excel. Data in PDF and image formats can’t be, at least, not easily. As David Ottewell recently tweeted, a PDF of a spreadsheet is not a spreadsheet. These efforts dovetail with our broader efforts to make data available in manipulatable formats.
Wild, Wild Web
It is also important that our web site deliver the same user experience on smartphones or a tablets as it would when viewed on desktop or laptop browsers. This wasn’t high on our radar in 2011, when we redesigned our website in the Drupal content management system. At the time, we developed a mobile site as a separate, fractional copy of our main site.
A modest revamp of LSC.GOV is planned for second half of 2014 to improve the site navigation and responsiveness on multiple devices (e.g. one site that alters it’s navigational elements and appearance to properly utilize the screen that it’s displayed on). We also won’t forget the visitors that don’t have smart phones and how best to make information available to them.
Having a website that anticipates their diverse needs of our online visitors is our goal. What’s yours? What are your current challenges?