Designers fix what's broken on Hill site

Input from users of Congressional Research Service site helps make bill searches productive

A Library of Congress agency recently redesigned the Web interface of its bill search application to help users at all skill levels find data about past and pending legislation.

About 10,000 Hill employees use the search function of the Congressional Research Service site over the Capitol Hill intranet.

A search function is more than just a text-entry box on a screen, and it deserves thorough usability testing, said Louis Drummond, the service's project manager and the interface's designer. Drummond and a contractor who worked on the project talked about the redesign's three iterations at a recent Web conference in Arlington, Va.

The redesign followed three core principles, said Scott McDaniel, senior interaction designer for contractor Cognetics Corp. of Princeton Junction, N.J. He said the principles are: Learn from users, design with them in mind and re-evaluate at milestones.

What users do

As the redesign began, CRS officials weighed whether to build multiple search interfaces for different users' needs, McDaniel said.

The Hill intranet search page, dubbed Legislative Information Services, had only one box for text entry, but it linked to a number of 'canned' or predefined searches. There was a separate page for advanced searches and searches across multiple sessions of Congress. Both pages had numerous 'search' and 'clear all' buttons.

'We thought we were helping people, but we were confusing them,' Drummond said.

To find out what users wanted, Drummond's staff interviewed 19 volunteers recruited through the LIS e-mail list. The volunteers' Hill experience ranged from 10 months to 27 years.

They were asked to demonstrate how they searched and to describe the most complex search they had ever done.

'It turns out that most people don't do very complicated searches,' Drummond said.

The staff found a gap between what users said they did and what they actually did. They discovered that the volunteers had been confused by basic versus advanced searches, and that many had never noticed the availability of the latter.

The developers then invented two personas, one more experienced than the other, McDaniel said. One persona was a policy director for an imaginary Senate committee. With 14 years of Hill experience and a job tracking and drafting legislation, she would do lots of full-text searching.

The other persona was a young House legislative assistant who performed basic online tasks.

A technical constraint, McDaniel said, was the need to maintain two databases, one of the full text of bills and the other of metadata for bill summary and status, or BSS. An early concept called for a quick search feature to combine BSS and bill text on one basic search page.

To save on development costs, McDaniel said, the team used the Microsoft Visio drawing program. They made printed mockups of the separate quick-search and advanced-search pages, which the volunteers viewed through a cardboard window to simulate a scrolling screen.

The first usability test showed that many people didn't know metadata pages cannot do full-text searches, McDaniel said. Some volunteers initially had trouble navigating until they found the tabs leading to advanced, multi-Congress, full-text and browse options.

The second design iteration gave several cues on the metadata pages to lead users to the full-text search feature.

For the second usability test, the design team coded an HTML page and asked eight volunteers, split between expert searchers and novices, to find the help function.

Drummond said the volunteers were still confused about the difference between metadata and full-text searches, but this time most caught themselves before they clicked the metadata search button.

They did not find the online help function, however, and there were some negative reactions to the colors and graphics. People called the quick-search page 'the pink page,' Drummond said.
In the third iteration, the 'browse' button was changed to 'view lists.'

'We suspect people distrusted the word browse,' Drummond said. The online help icon was replaced by a text link, and the pink color scheme became blue and white.

The third usability test was shorter than the others. 'We were getting near the end, so we had to hurry,' Drummond said.

Four volunteers, all from CRS, successfully distinguished between metadata and full-text searches, found the help links, and understood and used the pages of lists.

Drummond then locked down the design and sent it to the programmers. The new pages went live on Jan. 8, the second day of the 108th Congress.

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