Web pros give tips for smooth look and feel

Consistency on an agency Web site requires top-level backing, strict deadlines and detailed templates, said three feds who enforce such rules, speaking at the FedWeb fall conference in Arlington, Va.

Jeffrey Levy, a Web quality evangelist at the Environmental Protection Agency, said the design specifications for EPA's site took 14 months, because Web design had always been a bottom-up process before.

In spring 2001, an internal working group studied Web policies and found no consistent look and feel. 'Everyone had their own idea about what shade of blue to use, how thick the bar should be,' Levy said. But EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman saw a strategic opportunity, Levy said, and 'one memo from the top wiped away all objections.'

In August 2001, the team laid out the initial specification and solicited two rounds of comments.
'Every single element went through hours of discussion,' Levy said. The most recent version of EPA's template came out in March, and all pages were supposed to be converted by June 30, a project that is now only 84 percent complete.

'We set a very aggressive deadline and knew some people wouldn't make it,' Levy said.
But setting a deadline was important, because the number of individual pages will only grow over time, Levy said. EPA's site now has 400,000 HTML pages with links to more than 250 databases.
Asked how he tests Web pages, Levy said, 'I send stuff to my mother. No joke.'

Posting limits

Helen A. Savoye, deputy departmental Web manager for the Housing and Urban Development Department, said www.hud.gov has about 110,000 pages and links to 55,000 files on other servers. The site also links to about 50 databases.

The department keeps strict control on how many people can post things, Savoye said. Between headquarters and regional offices, there are 45 Web managers who create online content. Assistant secretaries give the site a quarterly review.

Savoye said all program-area Web managers must follow a template for a standard look and feel. In the early days, the site had many contributors and a multiplicity of page designs. Many visitors already felt confused and scared about losing their homes, Savoye said, and the lack of visual consistency added to the confusion. So HUD cut back on the number of people with posting rights.

HUD recently added local information with drop-down links to pages for each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It took months of discussion to figure out what belonged to which field office, Savoye said.

'One thing that helped us tremendously was buy-in' from Secretary Mel Martinez, she added. 'That was absolutely critical.'

David Kitzmiller, an Internet specialist at the Federal Communications Commission, said the FCC's 20,000 Web pages point to another 18,000 documents in Microsoft Word and Excel, Adobe Portable Document Format and plain text. The site grows by about 500 documents per day and has 132 forms, most in PDF. About 71 people can post, Kitzmiller said.

Top-level support

Three offices at FCC contributed a statement of work to the redesign, Kitzmiller said. Over a four-month period, a consulting firm used that statement, public comments and suggestions by usability experts to develop a template. The effort had top-level support from the commissioners, Kitzmiller said.

The content team redesigned from the top down, starting with the home page. Most of the rest was converted to the new format over two or three months.

FCC hasn't converted its electronic filing system to the standard look and feel format, however, 'because it would take stacks of programmers to recode everything, and we just didn't have the budget,' Kitzmiller said.

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