Energy.gov: A Content Strategy Case Study

Posted on August 4th, 2011

2


Energy.gov homepage

Energy.gov conceptual homepage design

What is it like to have free reign to redesign a government website? I found out when HUGE was commissioned to help the US Department of Energy redesign Energy.gov and in the process, rethink what a government website should look like and be about.

In true HUGE style, we wanted to go big and bold. And this wasn’t only for visual design. We had to rethink how a massive governmental body would need to shift in mindset to be able to publish content to both niche and general audiences. In the end, I worked closely with the User Experience Lead and Creative Director to come up with a vision that truly interwove design, brand and content together. It was a superb and critical collaboration and a case study in itself for how content strategy plays an important role in upfront digital strategy.

Task:

Our task was two-fold. Our initial research lead us to create two target audiences. Target one was massive change in terms of government sites. Our core mission was to speak directly to everyday American citizens. Citizens needed to know what their government was up to, how they could make a difference in their own homes and communities and be informed and proud of the innovation that was going on in DOE sponsored labs and congressional initiatives. Exposing this activity and innovation was also a way for us to inspire the next generation of energy science and emerging energy technology thinkers and doers.

We also wanted to create a game changer for government content. To do this, we isolated local content from national content. There were a number of content types that could be served to individuals based on their zip code: rebates, tax incentives, news and specific maps & data infographics. By chunking out this content when a user enters their zip code, we were able to serve them the most relevant content for them to immediately get context of how the Department of Energy is working for them and also encourage them to act quickly.

On the other end of the spectrum, we knew we had to design for an audience of specialists, technicians and individuals involved in energy policy on the hill. The challenge here was that this content, which currently lived within the numerous offices and departments within the larger DOE appealed only to these niche constituencies and was not well contextualized or translated for the general public.

Content Strategy Solution:

Content Strategy Roadmap and Vision: A redesign meant a new plan for how to position the department as a new brand and how to communicate this story in the general public’s language. This strategy outlined exactly what content types would be in the new site, where they would be situated, how the infographic data would be aggregated and how the organization would need to position a centralized publishing body with set roles to pull this new site off.

Taxonomy:  The scope of new topics that the DOE would be covering needed to be comprehensive enough to cover what the department does, but also account for terms that they would be covering in the future. Mainly, this meant creating a taxonomy that centered on public facing topic areas. The completed taxonomy served as a topical universe in which the central publishing body used as a guide in creating and maintaining news articles, maps & data and topic pages.

Information Architecture: We knew that we needed to craft a site that could cater and grow into serving a core audience of the general public, yet allow individual offices to speak directly to subject matter experts as appropriate. The result ended up being a site map that positioned public facing content (news, blog, interactive maps and infographics) as a separate area reserved for departmental pages and their specific audiences. We also created a defined set of flexible templates; some in which both the central publishing team and individual department publishers could share, and others that were designated for one group only. Doing this created a limitations of control in which the individual departments would be creating pages that were only living within the architecture of their individual section and the larger information architecture would be preserved.

Publishing Guidelines: We knew that the central publishing body would not be creating every single page on the site. Therefore, we created a handbook for each of the numerous department content producers to consult in order to ensure they were creating on-brand and on-topic pages. This was used as a user’s manual for training new content producers as well as a “content style guide” to maintain quality over time and give guidance around when to use certain templates as mediums for communication in the right places.

Learnings:

This project largely succeeded because of two key reasons. Firstly, the Department of Energy was ready and willing to take risks in defining what the new standard of government websites should be. Secondly, the Department positioned a central publishing and governance body to oversee and evangelize the new designs within the organization, larger government and piquing the interest of the general public through social media channels. Cammie Croft was at the helm of this project – straight from a previously proven track record at Whitehouse.gov. By the time we came on board, she had organized the central publishing body and started a blog and social media initiatives that were proving to be solid two-way conversations between the government and general public. We also worked well and closely with her team to create content structure and editorial voice going forward. I cannot express how much that these two aspects needed to be in place in order for an organization of this magnitude to pull off a dramatic change in the way they speak to and provide information to specific audiences at appropriate places on the site.

Given the momentum and support we had (through our immediate DOE stakeholders and up the chain to Secretary Chu and President Obama) to freely create the next generation of governmental sites, I think we succeeded. It’s exciting to think that we took a step forward in creating templates and architecture that allow government offices to publish content specific to their niche audiences as well as created a platform in which the overarching story translated and contextualized the niche stories. It’s exciting to know that we were part of opening conversation and increasing transparency into an otherwise relatively mysterious government body.