Saturday, August 09, 2008

Lessons to be learnt from the Grocery choice website

The last few days have seen a number of media reports criticising the new Federal government Grocery choice website.

Amidst the noise there are several key takeaways for public sector website managers.

Note that I'm not involved with the Grocery choice website or program. I'm commenting from the perspective of a public sector web manager who needs to meet the same level of scrutiny for the sites I manage.

What is Grocery choice?
The purpose of the grocery choice website, in its own words, is to provide practical grocery price information to help consumers find the cheapest overall supermarket chain in their area. It does this by publishing prices for typical grocery baskets across supermarket retailers in different areas of Australia, updated monthly.

The website was launched on 5 August this year, at the same time as the ACCC Grocery Inquiry report was released.

The main criticisms of Grocery choice
Putting aside politics, criticism has fallen into several areas;

What should government website managers take away from this?
  • Accessibility is crucial - failure to meet the government minimum standards can place your organisation at risk.

  • Usefulness is a function of both information and presentation - web managers need to consider how to best present and explain information and services within the capabilities of the online channel to convey maximum meaning and understanding.

  • Select channels based on desired outcomes - web managers need to be able to convey an understanding of the online channel's capabilities and advise other managers when it is the most important channel, a supporting channel or should not be used.

Unpacking the takeaways

Accessibility is a legal requirement for government agencies. Compromising website accessibility, whether due to tight deadlines or changes in design or requirements, can expose a government agency to legal action and should be considered as a risk in any web project.

On that basis accessibility is a very important area for government website managers to understand and manage. Government agencies are required to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.o) developed by the W3C in 1999 in meeting the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

This is detailed in AGIMO's Web Publishing Guide within the Accessibility section.

The minimum standard for a government website is an 'A' rating, with 'AA' rating recommended (personally we're gradually shifting our agency websites to 'AAA' level). There are some great tools available to analyse sites to ensure they meet the standard, such as the VisionAustralia web accessibility toolbar and, as I've discussed previously, a list of tools from AIM.

Web managers should also note that the W3C's update to their guidelines, WCAG 2.0, is nearly here. There are already a useful reference on how to meet the WCAG 2.0 guidelines available from WIPA.

The criticism of Grocery choice is clearcut - if the site doesn't meet the 'A' minimum level then it does fail to meet Australian government standards and this needs to be addressed as a priority.

If it remains unaddressed then legal action is possible, similar to the accessibility court case around the Sydney Olympics website, well described and documented by Tom Worthington.

Does the website serve a useful purpose? Does it provide relevant, timely and usable information and/or services for citizens and customers.

This is something all web managers should be considering when building or developing websites.

In meeting the goals of a government agency web managers need to consider the needs of multiple groups of stakeholders and audiences. We also need to consider the capabilities of the channel itself - online is not the best channel for every engagement.

In Grocery choice's case the debate has centred on whether the information in the site - which is published monthly - is useful to citizens.

This is a debate with two sides, Choice magazine, as quoted in the Livenews article, Grocery Watch is a great tool: Choice, has expressed that they believe the website is of use, whereas other commentators has said that monthly basket data is not as useful as visiting the local supermarkets.

The information is collected as part of a set program, over which I would expect the website manager has little control.

However I think the site manager has done an excellent job of presenting this information in a useful way, and explaining the collection process such that website visitors can make their own determinations of the usefulness of the data.

The presentation and organisation of information is often the area over which website managers have the greatest influence in helping make a website more useful for citizens.

The value of information or services can be greatly enhanced - or greatly diminished - through presentation and all website managers need to have a firm grasp of how to best use the online channel to maximise this value, even when they have no control over the information itself.

Channel choice
The specific debate in ABC's article (mentioned earlier) is related to claims that seniors cannot benefit from the Grocery choice information as they make limited use of the online channel.

Online has always been a controversial channel as not everyone chooses or is able to use the internet. For example it has higher barriers to entry than other mass media - you need to purchase a computer and pay for an ongoing ISP account. Television, radio and print media have a lower upfront investment and shallower learning curve.

Despite this, internet has been adopted in Australia much faster than radio, television or print media. Industry reports are fairly clear that both television and print readership are declining. The advertising industry are also very clear that 18-35 year olds are very difficult to reach via other media, as has been discussed in ABC's The Gruen Transfer.

So therefore online is an important and growing channel - but is not a universal channel.

My experience has been that ]in management there are internet 'bulls' and internet 'bears'. The first group seeks to use the internet wherever possible, is more supportive of the channel and more inclined to fund online initiatives. The second group is still cautious of the internet, is more dismissive of whether it is used and how it is used and is inclined to use traditional channels.

Effective website managers need to steer a middle course, advocating use of the channel where appropriate, and advocating the use of other channels where not. They also need to ensure that other managers understand the capabilities of the online channel so that good channel choice decisions can be made.

The primary goals of organisations generally involve reaching, communicating and engaging with customers and stakeholders - providing what is needful and supporting the conversations necessary to make improvements over time in an effective and cost-efficient manner.

On this basis the channels selected are less important than the outcomes achieved.

I personally remain mindful of this, and believe other web managers should also.

Did you have other take-aways?
I'd appreciate comments from other web managers regarding the takeaways they've had regarding the Grocery choice media coverage.


  1. Justin Kerr-StevensAugust 10, 2008 at 5:24 PM


    The thing I find interesting here is that grocery choices is government led. There is a similar service here in the uk that is doing quite well - - a start-up that enables users to track the cost of their shopping and then sends the list through to the supermarkets to purchase goods online. To me it would seem that a private venture of this type is always going to be more succesful than one that is government led. If investors recognise the commercial viability of a product it tends to have a slightly longer shelf-life (sorry) as a service.

  2. Hi Justin,

    That's an interesting business.

    Australia tends to be infertile soil for start-ups and this tends to lead the government into activities that in the US and UK might be private led.

    It's partially cultural and partially due to our financial structures.

    Having founded about 8 companies and funded several I've seen some of the differences in how Australia treats entrepreneurs compared to other countries.

  3. I am surprised they let it go live without a proper check of accessibility. Also, that, in 2008, they're still using table-based layouts.

    It's major function seems to be around putting pressure on the major supermarkets, it's not terribly useful for an individual consumer. The information is updated too infrequently and the "baskets" concept unhelpful.