Site-smart

Gina Pearson of USDA's Economic Research Service says 'persona' posters helped her agency's developers better tailor their site to the real Web audience.

Olivier Douliery

Designers give tips for user-friendly sites

Playing pretend is a good way to make a Web site more welcoming. Specifically, designers suggest, agencies should test their sites' friendliness against realistic but fictitious user profiles.

'Web sites exist only to be used,' said design consultant Ginny Redish of Bethesda, Md. 'We tend to forget that this is a dialogue with users at the other end. If users can't figure out what to do with the site, why did you bother to create it?'

Several federal Web designers and consultants presented strategies for effective Web and software applications at a recent workshop in Arlington, Va.

The workshop focused on user-centered design, which Redish defined as focusing on users' needs and expectations throughout the planning, development and design of a site or application.

Web designers who don't know their users wind up designing pages to suit themselves, she said.

Redish presented a toolbox of tips and tricks for integrating user-centered design principles into a Web project.

Long-term savings

In the long run, the cost of designing an online app without user-centered design will exceed the cost of doing it with those principles, Redish said.

Several agencies have invented elaborate, fictitious personas of typical users to help them make e-government services more efficient.

For example, the Web staff at the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service based their audience personas on in-depth interviews and research, said Gina Pearson, a Web manager for the agency.

During a major redesign in early 2001, the staff even developed illustrated posters for each persona and placed them around the building, Pearson said. That prompted some staff members to ask jokingly where all the good-looking people worked, contractor Chris Wolz said.

'A persona is not an exercise in creative writing,' cautioned Scott McDaniel, a consultant who worked on the redesign of a Congressional Research Service site. 'It has to be based on research you did.'

Pearson urged agencies to tailor sites to the key audience. 'When you try to serve too many audiences, you serve none of them well,' she said.

Other speakers at the workshop, sponsored by the Universal Access Working Group of the CIO Council's Architecture and Infrastructure Committee, emphasized that agencies need to conduct several rounds of testing with live users.

Testing prototypes

David Brown, an IRS electronic publishing specialist, said he has tested prototypes of an intranet tool for tax representatives at IRS call centers in three states. They answer phoned-in tax questions from the public and need fast access to IRS regulations.

Sean Wheeler, lead usability specialist for the Social Security Administration, advocated testing for user-friendliness in the early stages of design, rather than the later stages.

Agencies also need performance measures when tackling user-centered design issues, said Nicole Burton, a usability analyst for the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service. Target the core customers and tasks, and set up narrow, well-defined metrics, she advised.

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