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University Web Developers

I work in the research administrative office of my University and am working on a series of redesigns of departmental sites we host.

One of these departments has a series of documents that are quite long (20-50 and longer pages printed) currently posted as both HTML and PDF docs. These documents are summaries institutionally specific guidance and rules based on much longer regulatory body (i.e. OSHA) standards.

I'm having an...interesting time approaching usability discussions with this department. The language cannot be simplified and to a large degree must remain in legalese. Many of their users print these out and have them on hand for reference. The clear majority of users aren't out browsing these docs for fun.

This may seem like a basic question, but does anyone have experience with or best practice for posting long, dry, legally required policy documents in a "usable" manner?

Thanks much.

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Hi John,

Those long docs are tough; we don't want to use the web as a filing cabinet, but we want to make people happy.

I might try a couple of approaches:

1) The hard part about this is having two versions: Web and PDF/DOC. Nobody likes duplicating effort.
If you could convince the dept. that the web version becomes the official version, you could create a nice print stylesheet that would print nicely enough to read.

2) With some Excel documents, I import them into Google Docs and publish them as a web page. Takes a few seconds, and then it's accessible to anyone. The drawback is that you can't track its usage via analytics. You could do the same thing with Word Docs as well.
Thanks, Charlie.

In this case, the content is does actually get used with some frequency. The info affects a couple of thousand faculty/staff/students. It's also the basis for some required training tests -- of the "open book" variety. As such, the content does need to be readily accessible, searchable, and easily printed.

With the length of some of these documents, posting as a single HTML page is pretty much out of the question. Duplicating work seems unavoidable.

This seems to be way more simple than we are making it out to be, but I don't see a good way to deal with it. It looks like many peer institutions just post them as PDFs, which may unfortunately be the way to go. That just means making sure they are as web- and user-friendly as possible, I s'pose.

Also it certainly doesn't help that we are (currently) stuck w/ Contribute for content "management".
My work doesn't often involve having to publish these kinds of documents, but it occasionally requires me to consume them. Certainly, you'll need to work within the political, organizational, and technological constraints with which you're stuck. Here's what I have found:

1. DOC and PDF are awful because they don't enable others to easily link to specific passages or sections, which is helpful when website owners want to help people understand specific portions of the policy by linking to them.

2. Breaking sections into separate web pages is better because you can assign each section a different URL (good for bookmarking and linking), but all-on-one-page is also helpful (good for printing). Best if you can provide both on the front end while maintaining only single copies of the data on the back end -- a simple scripting solution could suffice for this. I agree that a web master copy and a print stylesheet could provide a workable solution. Or, provide a web master copy as well as a PDF intended for printing only.

3. Most policies are not written from the consumer's perspective -- they're written from the policymaker's perspective. So almost by default they are not user friendly. Example: I had to write a summary of University of California (UC) policy that helped people understand copyright and privacy issues surrounding audio and video recording for classroom lectures at UCSF (University of California, San Francisco). No single UC policy clearly answers questions like: Can I record? What can I do with the recording? What can I not do with the recording? Who owns the recording? Here is the summary I created: -- it references 7 official policies totaling over 20,000 words. At some points, the summary clearly states when the university does not provide any guidance at all, e.g., "Unfortunately, the University does not provide guidelines for securing written consent." (Knowing that the university does not provide guidance is significantly more valuable than not knowing whether it does or not.) Without an easy-to-read summary, most people aren't going to bother (a) figuring out which policies are relevant (because there is no single policy for this topic), (b) picking out which of the 20,000 words are relevant, and (c) figuring out the correct action to take. They'll do what they want and sort it out later if they can. So, I encourage you to ask policymakers that if they are going to write policy in a manner that encourages people to not read it, then aren't they simply wasting everyone's time? Policymakers should be encouraged to write policy from the user's perspective rather than their own -- the consumption of the policy itself ought to be subject to usability testing. This is seemingly futile, but I believe that one administrator in the right position can make a huge difference.



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