The secret to a successful union website

Ask people what they think makes for a great union website. Some will say – keep it fresh with loads of new content. Others will add – make it interactive. Add a mailing list. Make sure the site is accessible for disabled people. Use a content management system. Don’t use Flash. Do add a search bar.
That’s good advice, but in my experience setting up three websites for three different trade unions in London this summer, I think there’s one thing often neglected when we talk about the difference between success and failure. I’m talking about training.

You can’t just build a website and hand it over to a union. Even if it’s your own union and you’ve built the website yourself.
I’ll give an example. For one website I’ve just completed, first I trained the branch secretary for a couple of hours. I then trained two other branch officials – because it’s always best to have more than one person involved – for a couple more hours. Last week I met with the branch secretary to do another hour’s refresher. And this week, he came by for two more hours to work out how to do a whole bunch of things on the site. And we’re not done yet – I’ve asked them to plan on a further training day.
The websites I’ve designed recently use Drupal, a powerful open source content management system. We like to say that running a website isn’t rocket science and tools like Drupal make it easy for anyone to have a feature-rich website that’s easy to maintain.
But that’s not exactly true. Judging by the number of issues that have come up with the three unions I’ve been working with, when planning on a website of this type, the vast majority of your time will be spent training – not configuring files.
I have long felt that trade unionists should have full control over their websites and not be reliant upon techies to do the work for them. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I find myself doing so much training. I don’t want to get an email or a phone call from the union every time there’s a small problem.
The fewer emails and phone calls I get will depend entirely on how well I’ve trained the union.
Often the documentation for the tools we use is written by people who don’t remotely resemble the actual users. Fresh-faced university graduates in Silicon Valley may be the ones who write up the documentation, but when ordinary mortals read it, they often don’t get it.
That’s why to properly train trade unionists to use a newly-created website, you have to know them – and best to be one of them. There are a whole range of reasons why people have a hard time with technology, so we have to start out with a certain degree of empathy.
The other day I was training a group of low-paid service sector workers in London to use their brand new union site. The subject was ‘how to create an account on the site’. To the 25-year old techie in San Francisco writing the code and what passes for documentation, that’s not even worth discussing. You obviously just click on the ‘create an account’ link. A no-brainer.
I spent probably 20 minutes with the group just on this subject. And it’s not because these people were particularly slow.
We can’t forget that even though most people we work with are now online, that doesn’t meant that they’re proficient in using complex websites. Mostly, people use email, surf the web, maybe buy stuff.
Most trade union members have never created an account for themselves on a Drupal site, even though techies seem to think that’s the easiest thing in the world.
We also need to keep in mind that many of the workers we are dealing with are not working in their native languages. So the on-screen instructions and error messages will not necessarily be clear to them.
So when you show someone a screen and it asks them for their user name, you hit the first hurdle. Does it want their real name? Their full name? A nick name? What if the name is already taken? And where does it ask for their password? (Answer: it doesn’t.)
You find out just how hard it can be to use what we might think of as a simple website by actually sitting down with working people and training them, answering their questions, seeing what’s difficult.
The guru of website usability, Jakob Nielsen, calls this kind of testing of websites absolutely essential. But I’m certain that most unions don’t test and don’t train properly. Big unions will use large and expensive design firms and training will be minimal. Techies will handle any problems that arise.
Local unions will have websites designed by an enthusiast and he or she will be the only one who actually knows how to use Dreamweaver or Front Page, or whatever tool they used to create their site.
Training makes the difference between a stale and boring union website and a great union website. Between a website that’s just an online brochure and one that’s an online community.
It’s not enough to use the latest, coolest tools, nor is it enough to rely on buzzwords like “open source” and “content management system”.
If I’ve learned one thing in a decade of designing union websites it’s this: the most important skill is the ability to listen.

5 Comments on "The secret to a successful union website"

  1. Oh so true. But one of the other little nightmares is the upgrade process.
    You get a notifications saying that the next magnificent “must have” upgrade is out that you just can’t do without. All too often we seem to be back to command lines and backing up before you do anything.
    The last thing you want to do is lose all your hard work because you messed up the upgrade. Frightening stuff.
    There are some on-line attempts to improve this. One I found was ‘Learn by the Drop’ ( ) which has produced some on-line videos to actually show you how to do an upgrade for instance. Producing videos and leaving them with people would be an interesting development. I don’t think they are hard to do.

  2. great stuff.
    A friend of mine recently told me: “that’s the last time I build a site for an NGO and give them the admin keys” what she meant was, next time – she’ll get someone in the organisation to build the site from scratch, or not at all. Which points to even more basic stuff than Drupal: wordpress, google pages, wetpaint – even a FB or MySpace page (brrr). Never mind the features, the main thing is empowerment. A site that the org can manage themselves and use to mobilise their ranks.

  3. This is one of the reasons I like wiki. I click edit, type in some words in a language I know and click save.
    I don’t have to know how to run a website, I just have to trust that the website I am using will be around, but even that is scary:
    I am really interested how online organizers are going to craft a web that workers can use and plug into easily. is a space for some of those ideas, really rough right now.
    Great post Eric.
    Best, Mark

  4. John Burgess | 08/09/2008 at 10:43 |

    I am one of the branches Eric has been helping to launch an interactive website.
    I can’t beleive how easy it is to use. News changes daily and we need to be self reliant and not have to wait for the IT person in the branch or the IT consultants to upload the latest news.
    Communication is key to any trade union and websites are a key part.
    I would recommend this approach to web sites fro trade unions
    big thanks Eric

  5. Working through sites is certainly one of the things to do, particularly for what would often be described as ‘administrators’ but really Drupal should be as easy to use as possible – and at the moment large parts of it aren’t.
    A big part of the strength of Drupal is for community sites. But here you just can’t get to training all the users, so it’s got to ‘just work’.
    There was a great usability sprint at the Drupalcon in Hungary, and there is some serious work on it in the pipeline as well. Much much more can be found on If you’ve had experience working with people who have difficulty using a site I suspect possible input could be really valuable.

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