The AlbertaCanada.com web portal is a provincial and federal initiative to help attract skilled workers and foster economic development in Alberta. The Government of Alberta assigned us the mandate to improve an already a high-performing communications platform.
Alberta Canada’s challenge was to attract more than 100,000 new workers to the province to meet its energy and industrial sector needs, but its digital platform seemed to have plateaued: the site dominated search rankings, web traffic was growing steadily, and conversion rates appeared to be well within industry norms. Our mandate was to take something that was already working very well and make it better by increasing traffic and conversions. The client wanted to know what new features would deliver the results it wanted, but we had a suspicion – as always – that the best results come from optimizing both content and the user experience.
- Find a way to increase traffic and conversions.
- Balance what appeared to be competing priorities between labour attraction and economic development.
- Unify the content overall and develop a consistent voice for the site, since content is contributed and managed by three provincial ministries and a federal department.
- Build a mobile strategy to address the growing smartphone audience (this was 2011 and responsive web design was barely a thing).
- Create a unified CMS and increase the ability to publish open data and capture leads into a CRM.
Although the mandate for Alberta Canada was clear, we weren’t staring at a series of obvious problems: there was no low-hanging fruit. So we began our discovery process by asking foundational questions in order to start creating a picture of the site’s users and what they needed. Who is using this site? Who should be using the site? How are we successful in meeting their needs today? Where are the invisible gaps that no one is seeing?
We held stakeholder workshops, dove into analytics, audited web content, and iterated using audience personas to try to uncover insight that would help us understand how to improve the platform’s performance.
Through our work we started to see the following patterns and priorities:
- It was critical to improve the site for mobile.
- Although the site scored high in the obvious search terms, there were opportunities to increase performance in a set of terms that were not being well exploited.
- Analytics were telling a very positive story, but enhanced reporting capabilities could yield develop new insight that would enable us to continually improve the site.
- There were opportunities to improve content accessibility and invest in plain language communication, which is essential for newcomers seeking information.
- Improved consistency in navigation would help visitors move through the site more quickly and easily.
None of these individual improvements alone seemed to be able to move the needle for Alberta Canada in the way it needed, but we were convinced that collectively, these incremental improvements in content and delivery would be additive. We believe that a great content experience requires attention to detail and a passionate commitment to visitors’ needs.
Responsive web design in its infancy
Our first and most important recommendation to Alberta Canada was to invest in the mobile experience. Because its target audience included working professionals and international workers considering immigration, smartphones were by far the most important opportunity for growth. While responsive web design is now accepted to be a de facto approach, we delivered our report in February of 2011. The Boston Globe website (considered to be the first enterprise site built using responsive techniques) had only launched a few months earlier, and the ink was barely dry on Ethan Marcotte’s definitive work on the subject. But from the first days we saw the promise of this technique.
To make sure we were starting off in the strongest position, we brought Ethan to our team in the capacity of strategic advisor. This site was his second major responsive project after The Boston Globe, and it was certainly the first significant public-sector responsive web design project in Canada.
Relationships and measurement
The other piece of insight that we brought forward through our review of analytics was that visitors tended to make multiple visits to the website, moving deeper into the content each time. In particular, potential immigrants to Canada who were considering relocating family needed to visit the site time and again in order to fully understand the opportunities available, and the process for immigrating. AlbertaCanada.com needed to build a relationship with future Albertans, who were often thousands of kilometres way, through web content that was inviting and informative. It was essential for us to make the following improvements:
- Simplify the site navigation to help new visitors to quickly find introductory information.
- Invest in plain language to introduce complex processes and replace dense text with illustrations and simplified messages.
- Build stronger calls to action that help to capture interested workers, so that they could move seamlessly from a web visitor to a qualified worker.
Attention to detail
Some of our roadmap plans were focused on visionary activities like moving to relationship-generating content and responsive web design; however, we also recognized that getting the details right would make all the difference in the end. Our roadmap included not just big picture ideas, but a long list of technical details that we would attend to such as the following:
- Focus on governance
- Ensure that the project is aligned with departmental priorities.
- Maintain a development roadmap so that all stakeholders understand exactly where we’re going and how we plan to get there.
- Help the AlbertaCanada.com team to build capabilities to manage social media
- Elevate content from good to great
- Make sure photographic content is authentic and inspiring.
- Make sure the navigation labelling matches the audience’s mental model.
- Focus on typography details so that content is easily scannable.
- Get the technology right
- Make sure that content lifecycle management, workflow, and publishing support multiple departments contributing to a single platform in a single voice.
- Make sure the site is optimized for all browsers and devices.
- Better integration with internal systems for capturing leads by using web services so that we can design easy-to-use, accessible web forms.
- Make sure everything is accessible – templates, content, applications – so that we remove all barriers to using the site.
- It’s all about the audience
- Get the long-tail search phrases right to find new audiences.
- Build audience-specific content to appeal to specific, high-priority groups.
- Improve page titles, metadata, and headings so that search engines better understand page content.
- Better configure analytics so that it’s easier to identify long-tail search phrases and improve content in the future.
This was the first large-scale public sector responsive redesign in Canada and helped create a base for future Government of Alberta projects.
When we started with AlbertaCanada.com, we were told that traffic was at capacity, and that search optimization had peaked. However, through our work we were able to create dramatic improvements.
In the year following the launch of our redesigned AlbertaCanada.com portal:
- Mobile traffic increased by more than 800%.
- New visitors who arrived based on organic search terms increased by 40%.
- New visitors who actually responded to the calls to action and registered in the database of interested workers increased by more than 40%.
These increases are based on year-over-year results. Prior to our work, year-over-year growth had been in the low single digits. Post-launch feedback from the public was overwhelmingly positive, and analytics provided evidence that visitors were more successful in navigating through content and the immigration process, especially in repeat visits.
In addition, internal government employees can more easily find the content they need. Important documents such as application forms, checklists, and fact sheets are all managed within the CMS asset manager, and can be easily found by users and content authors. One of the best ways to improve web content is by improving the experience of content creators.
By-products are valuable too
Our commitment to working collaboratively with our clients is part of our mission. As part of this process, we invited other departments from the Government of Alberta that wanted to explore responsive web design techniques to join our working sessions and learn about our process.
Some of the people who took part were responsible for Alberta’s unified look-and-feel strategy for digital channels, and they were able to adopt many of our working approaches and techniques for their work on the new Alberta.com portal and the global design templates that power all Alberta government websites.
It’s good to share, and we’re pleased that our work could create high value by-products.