Another View: Do Web sites put agencies' best faces forward?

Hal Miller-Jacobs

Here is one unmistakable sign that it truly is a new day in government: A growing number of citizens in search of reliable health information, printable tax forms or Social Security information are likely to go to a computer to get what they need. The number of Americans who have visited government Web sites has jumped by more than 70 percent in the past two years, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The Web is becoming popular with citizens because nobody puts them on hold, they don't have to punch their way through a frustrating series of telephone menus nor wait 30 days for a reply by mail.

Government Web sites are now the face of government, providing core services and information. At the federal level, those core services include Social Security, taxes and health. Locally, services from the Web include registering your automobile, renewing driver's licenses and scheduling mundane tasks like trash pickup.

Like government itself, Web sites must be reliable and easy to access, organized and understandable.

While every level of government can benefit from a usable Web site, this is of greatest importance to the federal government. Why? Most people live outside Washington. For them, the Internet is often the closest link to the federal government.

Some research shows people visiting federal government sites apparently are not getting what they want. In one 2001 study by Accenture LLP of Chicago, a review of 25 federal sites found that 68 percent of sites had branding, or identification, difficulties, 80 percent received poor scores on navigation and 72 percent of search engines failed to return meaningful title tags.

In a recent study of how users look for information on Web sites, researchers User Interface Engineering of Bradford, Mass., found that about 70 percent of participants were unable to locate the information they were searching for when using the sites' own search engines. The Web should not be that difficult to use.

When federal Web sites are tooled correctly with the users' needs and habits in mind, it means fewer telephone complaints from people unable to find hidden information.

The average American may not be able to describe usability. But they know and respond to it when they see it.

Usability engineering requires the following steps: knowing the users, determining why they would come to the site, developing concepts for the types of information that would satisfy their needs and generating a prototype design of how the information will be conveyed.

At this point, you test with real users. Invariably you'll need to make adjustments and more tests before launching a site.

Some agencies investing in usability engineering are reaping noticeable dividends, including the National Cancer Institute, which has its own usability engineering branch and facility, the Communication Technologies Branch. NCI's usability team goes far beyond just usability testing. It collects and conducts research in usability engineering, sharing that knowledge with federal colleagues. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau and Social Security Administration are also noted for taking usability seriously.

Like every new medium, the Web has reached a point where the usability choices that agencies make determine the benefits they will realize from it. Federal agencies must lead public and private organizations in providing resources to the public they serve.

Hal Miller-Jacobs has designed and evaluated user interfaces for 30 years. He is a managing director of Human Factors International Inc. of Fairfield, Iowa.

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