PORT BRANDING AND USER EXPERIENCE ARE KEY NOW MORE THAN EVER
Every day seems to bring about more bad news at our nation’s ports. In September, the government reported that auto sales fell because of chip shortages that left car dealers with few vehicles to sell.
Now, more than ever, how a port communicates with the public and the businesses that rely on it is crucial, especially into the holiday shopping season. That port communication goes beyond just a well-designed website to include apps, social media, email alerts and newsletters all working together to communicate with one voice.
So, how should ports begin to think about their brand and their messaging to the public?
As an agency specializing in branding and user experience (UX), we learned much through several key projects with the Port of Long Beach (POLB). The challenge was identifying and enabling key user tasks for each of the Southern California port’s audience segments. We designed a role-based dashboard that delivered an effective and streamlined user experience. Meanwhile, an improved content structure and organization made the port’s thousands of information resources easier for users to find and access.
What follows are tips for ports to improve the user experience of their websites and how best to work with an agency to achieve that.
Tip #1 – The Bar is Low, Which Creates Opportunity
Most port websites are average at best in terms of design, UX and content. The bar is very low. That creates a distinct opportunity for those ports that want to establish digital leadership. Thinking in terms of their “brand” presents numerous challenges for ports for many reasons, not least of which is the number of stakeholders involved. While working with POLB, we had a team of approximately 50 core stakeholders that were involved in most of the important reviews and decisions. Additionally, we worked with teams representing all of the port’s different internal groups: marketing, community relations, environment, security, IT, etc.
Managing, coordinating and communicating with a large, diverse group of stakeholders and constituents is both art and science. Any port should make sure their agency partner has experience with this kind of “crowd control.” Because if not, it can quickly derail a project and add time and cost. A certain amount of political savvy also comes in handy as most port-related projects require some degree of coordination with the harbor commission and local government agencies.
Tip #2 – Ports are More Democratic than Private Companies, That’s a Good Thing
Ports and all of our public-facing clients tend to be far more democratic than our private sector clients. That means they’re open to trying new things as long as there is consensus, rather than decisions being driven by one owner or a small team of partners, who can easily fall into group-think.
Of course, the democratic approach requires a little more time but we feel like we get better input and results working this way. This approach does, however, require some additional time in the schedule but delivers the advantage of creating a deep and comprehensive understanding of the input we receive from employees, partners and stakeholders.
Tip #3 – Role-Based Resources
Most ports and their websites are accessed by the same types of users: truckers, port/dock workers, cargo owners, shippers, etc. Developing role-based entry points (i.e. “Click here for Trucker Resources”) will help users connect with the right content quickly. While we see that some ports make efforts to include these types of customer-oriented pages, they are often light on content and functionality that actually enhances the customer experience. It’s also crucial these pages are mobile-friendly since most port workers are accessing the website from a phone or tablet while in or around the port facility.
Most port websites have hundreds, if not thousands of documents, forms and permits. When these informational resources are difficult to find, it will generate a high volume of unnecessary calls to the port’s call center. Making sure these basic items are easy to find and easy to access will go a long way in eliminating unnecessary customer frustration and calls that could have otherwise been avoided with a better customer experience online.
This trend in the digital world—the idea of customer self-service—is critical in delivering the right experience online. So, make sure that all of these content elements are well-organized and easily accessible to customers of all types. Not only will this deliver a better experience for those customers, it will also create operational efficiency for ports that are always looking to do more with less.
Tip #4 – Harbor Commission and Port Politics
Let’s face it: Ports are political entities, so when you bring in creative partners, it’s vital to choose one that has experience working directly with port commissioners and who understand the nature of the port approval process. Our work with the POLB required frequent meetings with the harbor commissioners to keep them abreast of project decisions and developments. We also coordinated our efforts with the City of Long Beach mayor’s office and the various municipal organizations that fall within the city’s domain.
That also means making key presentations in forums like public access TV and radio to discuss the strategy with the public. Knowing that this will be a part of the project and approval process allows us to plan ahead and tailor our approach to the unique needs of whatever harbor commission and/or port we are working with.
Tip #5 – Don’t Forget the Port is a Place
Most ports are large, sprawling areas that encompass a vast amount of physical space. Given this fact, it’s somewhat ironic that many port websites lack an effective port map. For the POLB, we looked at a wide range of map styles and map data sources to identify the right blend of design and information.
Ultimately, we ended up creating a semi-customized approach (as opposed to simply using Google Maps or MapQuestion right out of the box) so the map could be tailored to the specific needs of POLB customers.
Tip #6 – Think Long and Hard About Content Volume and Content Migration
Most port websites contain a significant volume of content and have hundreds if not thousands of pages. One of the most critical aspects of any port website redesign is the content migration process. Because this process involves many different groups within the port deciding what content to migrate to the new site vs. content to retire or replace, it can take a significant chunk of time.
Starting this process earlier in the project lifecycle is critical. In fact, getting the migration rolling at the beginning of the project makes the most sense. Most of our private sector clients don’t have nearly as much content nor does the content review for those private-sector clients generally involve as many stakeholders or checkpoints. With ports, there are communication guidelines, content accessibility/usability standards, regulatory reviews, legal reviews and stakeholder reviews. So, it’s best to get the migration going as soon as possible to ensure that it doesn’t hold up the rest of the design and development activities.
No one knows what the future holds for our logistical supply chain, but ports can ease the stress on everyone who interacts with the port by taking the time to think creatively and strategically about the experience their customers will have online. Think about it as more than just a website: It is a customer web portal. If those customers are coming to your site for information and leaving more stressed and no less informed, then your site is an epic fail. And that’s a fail you can’t afford as the economy continues to rebound.
Jason Widmann is director of Strategy, Creative and UX at Stellar Agency, a digital design shop based in El Segundo, California, that focuses on the design and development of digital products, services and platforms.
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