Another View: NCI designed its site with users in mind

Walter Hauser

It's hard to imagine how the world got along before the Web. Now, it is hard to figure out how to live with it.

For a webmaster, gone are the days of humble gratitude if an organization had anything posted on the Web. Today, a webmaster's typical day is a steady stream of complaints that
documents are either out of date or impossible to find.

Web site planning and design are not trivial tasks that many omit in their rush to post. I get angry when someone refers to a document by saying, 'It's on the Web.' They might as well tell me, 'It's on planet Earth.'

Little better is the claim, 'It's on our Web site at www.confusingmess.gov.' This is usually a prelude to a search for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Often the navigation strategy is ill-designed for casual visitors who probably don't know an agency's organizational structure.

Search engines can be frustrating because they are so darned literal. If I do not know the exact nomenclature, I could spend days wandering lost in a Byzantine bureaucratic maze.

Research done by User Interface Engineering Inc. of Bradford, Mass., shows that visitors cannot find the information they seek on Web sites 60 percent of the time. Such people may never come back.

Site design guru Jakob Nielsen said people have a low tolerance for complex or slow sites. 'People don't want to wait. And they don't want to learn how to use a home page. There's no such thing as a training class or a manual for a Web site,' he said.

So how can agencies make their sites more usable? The National Cancer Institute, at www.usability.gov, is a leader in this field. NCI delivers a massive amount of information, to public, from answers in response to basic questions to expert research.

Steeped in the scientific method, NCI does not take its communication task lightly. Where so many webmasters follow rules-of-thumb and folklore, NCI has conducted research in the behavior of Web users. It established the Communication Technologies Branch to review and present these findings with a degree of scientific rigor that makes most of the literature about Web design appear amateurish by comparison.

Everyone with a message to communicate on the Web should bookmark the NCI site. Builders of great sites'or software interfaces in general'also should ask themselves five questions:
  • How fast can first-time users learn the interface sufficiently well to accomplish basic tasks?

  • How fast can experienced users accomplish tasks?

  • Can repeat visitors remember enough to use it effectively the next time, or must they relearn at every visit?

  • How often do users make errors, how serious are these errors and how do users recover from them?

  • How much do visitors enjoy using the system?

To see how NCI's technologists and physicians have applied these factors to heal their own Web site, go to www.usability.gov/lessons/learned.html.

NCI's recent survey, posted online at usability.gov/ugroup/ugroup06_17.html, found that two thirds of people don't return to a Web site if it doesn't meet their expectations.

The Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines, at usability.gov/guidelines, provides more than 50 design and usability guidelines based on emerging research and supporting information in the field.

Walter Houser is the webmaster at a federal department.

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