Another View: More than ever, Web site usability is king

Gabe Goldberg

The world has endured many failures to communicate, from Paul Newman's in the 1967 movie 'Cool Hand Luke' to Dilbert's everyday office adventures with his pointy-haired boss. Web site usability is often misunderstood. Yet it is getting even more important than just two years ago, now that the e-government drive has gathered massive momentum.

Difficulties start with terminology. It may seem a small matter, but explicitly calling Web site visitors 'customers' can create a more responsive mind-set for everyone involved in site operation.

This attitude of usability'looking outward to identify and meet customer needs rather than inward to cater to organizational issues'can help a Web team understand how its audience will likely use the site.

Some agency sites are deeply customer-centric; their managers recognize that citizens rarely visit to read management thoughts or see politicians' pictures. Others are more purely public relations.

Usability is a fuzzy term. It doesn't mean specifically Section 508 accessibility, and it's not merely related to content or information architecture. A dictionary definition, 'fitness for use, convenience,' works better.

Usability in Web site design is often a casualty of budget or time constraints. Even when developers consider it, they don't always measure it. This pains the Communication Technologies Branch of the National Cancer Institute, which operates the www.usability.gov site.

Usability starts with webmasters. They needn't be experts on their sites' subject matter, but they must understand information design, presentation and usability'and be willing to fight for their customers' interests.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen recently suggested that return on corporate intranet usability investment pays off tenfold or more. Usability costs little when you design it in initially, but it is very expensive to retrofit.

Agencies face more than financial consequences if a Web site gets publicly criticized for being customer-unfriendly. Doing a Web site on the cheap can lead to lightweight brochureware or massive but unusable shovelware. Worse, with public and political expectations rising, people see dysfunctional Web sites as evidence of dysfunctional organizations in need of renovation.

A study of 158 sites by Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., showed an appalling failure rate for basics such as searchability, reliability and navigation consistency. That's why Usability.gov advocates research with evidence and feedback. You must understand what creates site usability and use proven best practices to attain it.

Avoiding communication failure of your site'and perhaps your mission'requires top-to-bottom support for usability as a fundamental and ongoing requirement. Having agency managers watch live usability tests is one way to ensure their support.

Assigning responsibility for site usability can help an agency avoid user irritation caused by mismatched pages from many bureaus.

Usability work is never done. Web staff must continually analyze customer feedback and relate current content and technology to the explicit hierarchy of customer goals. It pays to visit Usability.gov's encyclopedic cookbook for ensuring agency Web site usability.

Above all, keep site goals in mind. Web sites are too important to be left to either content experts or technology gurus.

Gabe Goldberg is a technology consultant and writer in Bethesda, Md. Visit him at www.cpcug.org/user/gabe.

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