Go With the Flow

We often dismiss government work as something bearing little resemblance to the corporate world. There’s no profit motive (and we corporate folks are consumed with little else), so what could we possibly learn? Yet the Georgia Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Navigator Web site has made it into several of my columns. Why?

True, I’m partial to all things DOT. I’ve been privy to goings-on regarding its site because my husband worked there for over 10 years. If you’re like me, you see parallels in everyday situations that help you do your job better. Recently, I witnessed an interesting DOT project that’s an excellent marketing case study.

A group of Atlanta DOT traffic engineers had an idea. What if plasma screen display units featuring real-time traffic conditions were placed in corporate office buildings? Commuters would see them on their way out the door. In the event of a traffic nightmare (an everyday Atlanta occurrence) commuters could choose a different route or simply stay put for a while.

“We’re responding to an increasing demand for traffic information,” said Mark Demidovich, assistant state traffic operations engineer. “Making people aware of traffic conditions plays a role in our overall goal of reducing congestion. We hoped the displays in office buildings would catch commuters before they got caught in the traffic, while they still had time to alter their routes.”

I bet a few of you know what happened next. Ever have what you think is good idea, and somebody up the food chain not only agrees with you but wants it done immediately… with no additional funding? Word spread. Suddenly, the governor himself was planning a ribbon-cutting in front of the media.

The developers had only a few weeks to complete the project with no budget for content research or usability testing. With a high-profile, public unveiling, there was no room to slip on the deadline. Any flubs would be very publicly noted.

Who among us wouldn’t feel our stress levels rise under such conditions? Nothing quite like a high-profile, low-budget rush job (with no margin for error) to get the blood pumping. Doesn’t that describe your job more often than you care to think?

I was happy to be a fly on the wall, even to participate a little, as the project unfolded. The graphic designer started with a blank screen. Said Doug Chambers, DOT Web development manager, “The first question we had to answer was, ‘What content would a rush-hour commuter want to see as he walked to his car?’ We know what information commuters want from our Web site, and we know what they want when they’re in their cars. But this was new territory.”

Forget focus groups or any other kind of research to determine what content would be most relevant to commuters. No money, no time. Instead, the group pulled from readily available sources. Log reports from the DOT’s Web site gave some indication about the online content most accessed by commuters. That led to a decision to include a color-coded traffic map.

Internal knowledge of and experience with traffic conditions tagged trip-time calculations as valuable information. And based on the volume of email the DOT receives any time a traffic camera malfunctions, clearly commuters like to see traffic with their own eyes before they get in their cars. So, traffic cameras were added to the list.

The next challenge was how to present a large volume of traffic data on limited screen space. I tagged along during an outing to the site that would host the first display. David Spinney, IT applications administrator noted, “We looked at where the display would be located and measured the approximate distance from which passersby would view the display. And we noticed how fast people walk.”

Armed with that information, Alan Harmon, the graphic designer, went to work. He somehow managed to cut the content to fit the screen without losing the key components. Watching the process reminded me a lot of trying to write an effective email: cut, cut, cut.

As you well know, you can’t effectively design a Web site (or a plasma display screen) without some outside input. According to Chambers, “The content had to be large enough to be viewed from a few feet away, by a person in motion. And the information had to be clear enough to be understood by a tired commuter with a short attention span.”

Usability testing was a must. What do you do when there’s no budget for it?

That’s where I got to help. In an earlier column I mentioned a favorite strategy for the budget-weary: recruit inside personnel to use as guinea pigs. It works when you’re in a bind.

We gathered people from unrelated departments — folks with no idea what we were working on — and gave them a role to play: busy commuters on their way out the door. Their feedback helped refine terminology, set font sizes, and arrange content. Just in time. The final touches were put in place the night before the big unveiling.

The ribbon-cutting was a success. “The project was well-received by the media, and our prototype is up and running in the first office building” said Spinney. “Our next step is to refine the content by getting feedback from the commuters themselves, so we can make improvements and prepare for a larger-scale launch.”

It was refreshing to see continuing proof that budget and time constraints don’t have to mean low-quality work. Creativity, determination, and common sense go a long way toward making up for resources that may be lacking.

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