'I've Always Considered [Personalisation] A Core Benefit Of The Web As A Medium'

We spoke to Deputy Director of Digital Publishing at the Office for National Statistics, Laura Dewis


Laura Dewis is the Deputy Director of Digital Publishing at the Office for National Statistics, a position she has held for over three and a half years. Leading a new division to bring together analysts, communication experts, designers and developers, Laura ensures the production of new online content and products for a diverse range of customers. Previously, Laura was at the Open University for over seven years, where she held positions as Communications Manager and Head of Online Commissioning. Ahead of her presentation at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit in London this October 19-20, we sat down with Laura to talk digital publishing, from current challenges to the future of the industry. 

How have you seen the digital publishing industry change over the last year?

In government, it has been a relentless focus on streamlining the government's web estate to make it easier for users to find what they are looking for. Creating coherent services and curating content in a way that is meaningful to users sounds obvious, and is not driven by the latest trends, but it is a huge challenge when you consider the diversity of user needs associated with the information and services government provide. Neil Williams at the Government Digital Service set out a clear vision for GOV.UK earlier this year which focusses on coherent services, ease of reuse and making government participative, open and accountable. All good things. In the wider world, video and visual content is seeing significant growth and publishers are having to think harder about new modes of interaction, such as the potential for voice interfaces, now that smartphones are widely adopted and good enough to drive changes in behaviour.

What could the industry be doing to better meet consumer expectations?

Listen to them, observe people using our products, understand their needs and ensure product decisions are made with data as much as possible. If you want to appeal to millennials, you have to understand their motivations are about making a contribution to their communities, self-development, and portfolio careers that give them a greater work-life balance. I can think of lots of ways that we could better serve those objectives from improving online learning to creating a great user experience around open policy making. Also, we should be ensuring development teams have the environment and continuous development approaches in place to enable them to iterate as quickly as user expectations change.

How much of a place - if any - do you think personalisation has in digital publishing?

According to the experts, it is something Generation Z cares about, so if it's not important now, it soon will be if you want to tap into their future buying power! Looking at it from a non-commercial sense, I've always considered it a core benefit of the web as a medium. Code and data combined allow us to make our digital services more useful to the individual needs of our users. It's our duty to maximise the potential of the web to create the most helpful products, as long as we also respect the privacy of the people who allow us to use their data to personalise what we offer. And we've been buckling under the weight of information overload for some time - anything that can help with that has got to make us more efficient and less stressed, assuming its reliable and useful, and not just driven towards us buying more stuff. 

There is so much potential for the semantic web to increase the utility of information. Having previously worked in education, it was interesting for me to see the work TES has done on developing targetted content for time-poor teachers. Personalisation can also be a powerful way to engage people in content that may not otherwise seem relevant. At the Office for National Statistics we've seen great results from creating content that allows people to test their assumptions against what the data is telling us. It's surprising how often we have misconceptions about the area we live in, the number of teenage pregnancies, how the government budget is spent or the most common causes of death.

What in your experience are the most common mistakes made by digital publishers?

I still see too many organisations creating content with a print mindset, like magazine formats for tablets. My own organisation is not immune to that. It takes a significant cultural and capability shift to think about your products in a completely different way, especially if actually your users aren't all so-called digital natives and are quite comfortable with 8000-word PDFs, thank you very much. Focussing too much on your own digital channels, over syndication onto third-party platforms is increasingly less common, but it still happens. We have to pay more attention to Facebook's Instant Articles, for instance.

How can digital publishers best respond to the overwhelming shift toward video content?

Do two things that are at opposite ends of the scale. One - talk to and partner with traditional broadcasters who have years of transferable experience in the art of producing visual content that works for audiences. Two - talk to and partner with those who don't watch TV but instead are pro-sumers on digital video channels and are redefining the notion of what good looks like. Interactive TV hasn't taken off in a big way, but I think there is still room for a more integrated experience between lean-forward social and lean-back viewing, so don’t forget it's not all about creating a great visual experience but also what is going on behind the scenes, such as collecting the most useful metadata. The experts who have been doing this for a long time understand that. I also think it's vitally important to think about the accessibility implications of moving to more visual content.

Where do you see digital publishing going next?

Little and often will be a mantra for many. We're certainly looking at our publishing model to see how we can be more responsive to user needs. A lot of publishers, ourselves included, have quite fixed 'periodic' issues and we recognise that our users need more timely analysis and real-time data. Of course, there is ongoing growth in mobile and video. For data providers who have users who want to interrogate huge amounts of data, neither appears to be the highest priority, but we can't ignore the growth and changing user behaviours. 

We have to both improve the usability of our existing products as well as look at the potential. For us right now, that means concentrating on responsive design for data visualisation but we are starting to think about how mobile could be used in data capture and to provide notifications to people providing us with data. In the near-future we'll also be considering whether users would benefit from location-specific services, utilising our data. In data publishing, it is all about providing stable, machine readable data to enable greater flexibility in how we share, combine, curate, re-use and present data.

You can hear more from Laura, along with other industry leaders, at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit in London this October 19-20. To register your interest, click here.

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