Features: November 16th, 2004

Getting Young people to Become e-Citizens

By Dan Williamson

Despite well publicised cuts throughout council services, research from youth work magazine Young People Now has found that budgets for youth services across England have actually increased by over five per cent. The total budget for youth and community work in England has increased to ?m for the 2004-05 financial year, compared to ?m for the previous year.

Councils are spending this additional funding on projects which help them engage with the citizens of tomorrow. As well as pumping more money into youth clubs, ‘street-teams’ – youth workers which approach gangs on their own turf to engage with them – and diversionary youth schemes aimed at those ‘at risk’ of getting involved in anti-social behaviour, councils are now exploring a new means of communication – the web.

The benefits in successfully engaging with young people via a medium they have embraced as their own are significant. Good sites can act as a no-nonsense resource of all council services. Brilliant sites can open up an ongoing dialogue with young people, who are then willing to learn about and use council services they never knew existed. The ultimate aim is that this knowledge then gives young people the support needed to avoid potential problems with family, health and money, well before they occur.

Communicating through the web

Developing web sites which engage these citizens of tomorrow is paramount if local authorities are to meet the requirements of e-government in the future. Wandsworth Council is one local authority that has embarked on a strategy to extend its communications with young people onto the web.

Early in 2004, it commissioned Cimex Media to review a web site for its youth services scheme Base (www.base.uk.net), a partnership which is delivered by Wandsworth’s Young People Agents for Change (YPAC) a partnership of health, council services, businesses and voluntary organisations for youth projects and Connexions, the government’s support scheme for young people between the age of 13 and 19.

The Base scheme has a number of high street centres which provide young Wandsworth residents with a space to do homework, use computers, learn, get advice and, importantly, hang out. Cimex embarked on a programme to develop a new web site that would translate many of Base’s offline services online. Wandsworth’s specific brief was to develop a communications platform for Base youth facilities in the borough (primarily Roehampton and Tooting), and demonstrate the borough’s commitment providing information and services for 13-19 year olds.

The site had to clearly communicate the purpose of the Base project, using interactive, engaging and informative mechanisms. Providing a virtual experience indicative of the Base centres, all content had to communicate in a language that young people understood and provide links to others sources of information, while standing alone as an entity that is associated with but separate from the Base centres. As with all publicly funded sites, the site’s interactivity had to observe government accessibility guidelines.

Engaging the audience

A key aspect of any web site build is to develop content that successfully engages the target audience. For this project, content was given a priority status, because the site had to serve many audiences. The challenge was to develop a site which appealed to parents or guardians, teachers, Connexions personal advisers, the local police authority, local business and the young people themselves – the last of these audiences being traditionally hard to reach.

It’s often the case that websites are required to appeal to a wide age range in order to reflect an organisation’s remit. But this is where a youth focused web site can encounter potential difficulties. Soft drinks manufacturers and video games producers maintain that the youth market is made up of fractured sub-groups, each with its own motivations and interests.

In the offline world of a Base centre, a young person’s personal adviser can tailor their tone of voice, topic of discussion and general approach to the individual based on their experience of previous contact with that person.

Giving a web site this level of intelligence is possible, but only if you’re lucky enough to have a budget that lets you build a web site that can deliver personalised content to every interest group for every age.

In the absence of significant investment, it’s therefore important to develop editorial which can engage each and every age group from the offset.

Finding the key interests of users

One way of achieving this goal is to embark on research which breaks down the key interests of each age group – a process which, incredibly, is still overlooked by many web site developers. Many local authorities use the development of a new youth web site as an opportunity to engage with young people form the very start by involving them in the process. Many local authority web sites boast of their web site’s being ‘written by young people, for young people’.

In line with this approach, Cimex visited each Base centre and conducted focus groups which looked at styles of content and language, site structure and themes of content. For ease, two groups were established: one of young people between 13 and 16 years old; the other 17 to 19 years old.

We asked users for their preferences on the site’s content in terms of services, information and tools. They were also asked what types of web sites and magazines they normally read. Finally, each participant was then presented with three examples of editorial content, each of which reflected different approaches to writing and page structure.

From the research we were able to determine that most 13 to 16 year olds at the centres wanted games on the site and film and music reviews. But interestingly, the majority of younger users wanted details of local job centres, work experience schemes and education courses and career choices. Nearly all participants wanted help and information on revision and information on how the offline BASE centres could help them and how the web site itself could help them.

The desires of 17 to 19 year olds were quite surprising, in that many were keen to get help before they actually needed it, reflecting a considerably mature level of users.

As well as wanting games and advice on careers, the majority of older users wanted details on local doctors, dentists and chemists. They also wanted details of local family planning and sexual health clinics, in addition to drug and alcohol advice centres. Many users also wanted information on how to manage money and where to get financial support.

Research revealed that the majority of users favoured editorial content which presented the facts in a ‘straight’ manner. Final content was un-biased, and, crucially, avoided patronising language. At Cimex, we feel that content for this audience should take the approach of a ‘trusted’ older sibling, rather than that of a loved, but sometimes loathed parent.

The same approach was used when designing the look of the site. As with content, Cimex presented three design concepts to users. Using variations on graffiti, formal and skateboarder styles, the final design was chosen, again, because it represented a clear, no nonsense approach. In the end, the skateboarder style was voted most popular. Although popular among younger users, this design could have been unappealing to the 17 to 19 year old group. However, older users indicated their needs focused on the presence of in-depth information on health, training and careers, rather than visual design.

Even though more and more local authorities are developing youth focused web sites, many seem to have succumbed to what Cimex has found to be an epidemic among youth sites – static content.

Refreshing the content

No matter how much time has been spent on research for content and design, all of that hard work can go out of the window if a site is not updated on a regular basis. In Cimex’s extensive experience as an online content specialist, it’s often the case that regularly updated content goes hand in hand with repeat visits by users. Users associate constantly changing content with vibrant and topical websites.

It is clear that in order to encourage young people to participate in online government projects, it’s vital that your web site has to give them the opportunity to do the things they already enjoy doing. In this case, that’s allowing users to read up on gossip, fashion and films. No matter what the age, it also seems a good online game never goes amiss. Put simply – give young users an online environment which houses services they actually want to use and they’ll be more receptive to new services and tools.

By Dan Williamson is head of editorial services at Cimex Media.