Love at first site

Web Managers' Toolbox Looking to improve the usability of your agency's Web site? Here are several resources to help you get started.

OMB Policies for Federal Public Web Sites, www.firstgov.gov/webcontent: The Office of Management and Budget's guidelines and best practices for federal Web sites, as developed by the Interagency Committee on Government Information.

Plain Language Action and Information Network, www.plainlanguage.gov: A group of federal agency volunteers who can offer tips on how to translate the jargon on your Web sites into words everybody can understand. The Web site also has many helpful hints.

Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines, by Sanjay Koyani, Robert Bailey and Janice Nall: This GSA-published book has over 187 guidelines in everything from where to put navigational elements to how to format lists.

Section 508 Guidance, www.section508.gov: All federal Web sites must be able to be used by individuals with disabilities, as required by the Rehabilitation Act Amendment (Section 508). This site provides the standards, tools, and discussion forum.

Usability.Gov, www.usability.gov: The Health and Human Services Department's usability Web site provides a plethora of information: guides to log analysis tools, events and meetings, best practices and links to other sites.

Web Managers Advisory Council, www.webcontent.gov: An interagency group of federal Web managers, sponsored by the General Services Administration. The group's Web site has tips and notices of upcoming events and seminars, as well as instructions on how to join the council's mailing list.

Gina Pearson, Web manager for Agriculture's Economic Research Service, relies on a digital dashboard to gauge user satisfaction.

Olivier Douliery

Agencies compete with Amazon.com, whether they like it or not. Here are five steps to making your
users happy.


Each quarter, federal agencies are in a competition, not just among themselves, but also with private industry. The game? Score as high as possible up the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a gauge developed by the University of Michigan for judging how satisfied users are with Web sites of all stripes. The group's assessment is an important measure for agencies because it describes how well they're interacting with citizens online. The latest results, released last September, show agencies could do better.

Collectively, agency Web sites scored 73.5 on ACSI's 100-point customer satisfaction scale. ACSI considers 80 points or higher a mark of superior customer satisfaction. Many commercial companies made the 80-point club, but only 13 agency sites did [www.GCN.com/526]. The fact is, sophisticated operations such as Amazon.com have trained users to demand more from all Web sites, including government sites, particularly when it comes to usability. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make your site friendlier. And they don't require a ton of work.

Follow these techniques, culled from agencies that have used them, and soon you'll have a bead on your constituents. And maybe your site will be the Amazon.com of government.

Step 1 analyze those logs

Each time a visitor hits your site, the Web server records what pages were requested, when they were requested and what address they were shipped to. Once aggregated, the data in these logs can help Web managers sculpt their sites to better meet user needs.

A working group of the Interagency Committee on Government Information known as the Web Managers Advisory Council formed a task group to determine what were the best ways to use these metrics. Chaired by the Library of Congress' Joe Pagano, the group has begun creating a list of best practices for Web metrics, as well as a standard format for reporting metrics.

But there are also plenty of free tools available to make sense of the mountains of accumulated data. The open-source Analog application compiles logs into text reports, showing things such as the most popular pages, how much bandwidth is used and when during the day the Web server gets the most traffic.

Administrators can also run ReportMagic, from Seven Simple Machines of Seattle, on top of Analog to create graphics that better illustrate traffic trends and allow more sophisticated analysis.

To answer search-related questions, Google Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., offers a free beta service called Sitemaps that can show the most popular search terms that lead people to your site, as well as other Web sites that link to your site. For even more reporting, commercial vendors such as Coremetrics Inc. of San Mateo, Calif.; Omniture Inc. of Orem, Utah; and WebSideStory Inc. of Portland, Ore., offer tools to slice and dice data.

The Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service has taken the next step in collecting log statistics. The office has built a digital dashboard that collects the metrics from the different analysis applications, according to Gina Pearson, Web manager for the site. Data includes the results from customer satisfaction surveys, the total number of visitors each month, words entered into the search engine, the most popular pages and other metrics.

These metrics can be used to better customize the site for future use, Pearson said.

Looking at the paths that users carve through a Web site also can be immensely beneficial, said Olivia Liu Sheng, a researcher from the University of Utah. Sheng has studied e-government portal interfaces for the National Science Foundation. She suggests constructing a link structure that shows how all the pages are stitched together, then looking at the minimum number of mouse clicks it takes for a user to get to a desired location. With that information in hand, an agency should compare the number of mouse clicks with the actual number of clicks most users make to get to the information. If the second number is higher than the first, agencies should look for ways to better direct users.

Step 2 Survey your audience

Logs and other metrics can't provide all the details you need to gauge user experience. Surveys can help fill in the gaps.

The Postal Service, which expects to do about $1 billion a year in electronic commerce, is a big user of surveys, said Patti Mason, who oversees the agency's Web site. The site has gone through four major redesigns since its 1996 debut.

Mason said the Postal Service continually surveys its users, asking about areas of improvements. The agency gets about 2,500 responses a week, suggesting all manner of enhancements, and Mason's team ranks the suggestions in order of how closely they fit with the Postal Service's mission. From there, the group tackles the upgrades that are the most pertinent.

The National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute also frequently employs surveys. NCI charters the services of the ASCI and uses Internet audience measurement data from Neilsen NetRatings to see how its site compares with those in the private sector, such as Cancer.org.

Sue Feldman, the Web analytics program manager for NCI, said another good place to find survey information is in the firms that conduct research about an agency's domain of expertise. Feldman spoke at last year's Digital Government Conference in Atlanta. NCI uses a number of outlets for health-related information, such as Manhattan Research and the Health Information National Trends Survey. And if all this data weren't enough, NCI also makes use of national surveys from firms such as Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. NCI participates in Forrester Omnibus surveys, which quiz technology users about their use of the Internet.

This data could be useful to NCI because it shows the market audience that it is trying to reach with its site. For instance, NCI learned from a recent Forrester survey that the average age of online users seeking cancer information was 48, that 60 percent were female and that 70 percent had broadband connections. Also, 40 percent were looking for risk factors and causes of cancer.

'This told us what we needed to focus on our site,' Feldman said.

Step 3 Use stylesheets and standards

When it comes to Web sites, few agencies have had more variety in their designs than those under the NASA.gov domain name.

As a result, last year NASA decreed that its many Web sites should have a similar look and feel. Which is to say that when a user visits one page on the NASA site, it should look similar to other NASA pages. To this end, NASA headquarters released a guidebook to define the placement and format of certain content, such as headers and footers.

Although the guidelines drew on the NASA.gov home page, actually implementing the source code from that portal proved tricky because it contained many navigational links and other attributes specific to the site.
Individual NASA webmasters had a hard time cutting and pasting elements from the official site.

Now the agency has gone a step beyond a guidebook. One NASA Web developer has written a set of stylesheets that NASA agencies can use to put their sites into the format recommended by headquarters.

Bryan Stephenson, who works at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., developed a set of cascading stylesheets for a Goddard site, but says other NASA offices could use it. A World Wide Web consortium standard, CSS lets Web developers build a template that's called up by the browser when a Web page is requested. The browser then formats the graphical elements of the content'such as fonts, colors, spacing'according to the rules set by the CSS sheets.

Stephenson's CSS files set background colors, behaviors of the buttons, fonts and positions of the text on the Web page. Stephenson's page also includes a tutorial on how to set up a Web site.

In addition to the stylesheets, Goddard also offers an image generator that other NASA offices can use to build navigation boxes and section headers with the correct color, sizes and fonts, said Emma Antunes, Web manager for Goddard. 'If you don't have graphics design expertise, this really helps ensures you meet style guidelines without having to go through any extra effort.'

For this application, an administrator enters the text and the proportions of the box and the application returns an image file with the text in the correct font, color and rollover capabilities. Users can then download the resulting images and supporting JavaScript.

NASA's approach could be used by other agencies. By relying on guidelines and stylesheets, an agency could standardize the feel of Web sites and even generate tools that would help Web managers adhere to those rules.

Industry standards can also help. W3C has a passel of standards that, when used, can ensure that Web pages are rendered correctly across different browsers. In the late 1990s, Web developers faced a growing field of browser-specific standards. Each browser had its own way of rendering a Web page. Managers increasingly found themselves writing new code for each browser'a time-consuming and ultimately futile task.

In the past few years however, Web browsers have been adhering a lot more closely to industry standards such as HTML and Extensible HTML, CSS, ECMAScript and the W3C Document Object Model.

Step 4 Conduct user testing

It's almost a no-brainer, but before you launch a Web site, find some volunteers (a third-party research firm can help), sit them down in front of computers and observe how quickly (or slowly) they navigate through the site.

Testing usability has three components, according to William Killam, adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and president of User-Centered Design Inc., of Ashburn, Va. He recently spoke at the university's annual symposium on human-computer interaction. For Web sites, usability entails:
  • ease-of-learning, or how quickly a new user learns how to use a system.

  • ease-of-use, or how easily repeat users can use the site.

  • ease-of-recall, or how well a user navigates the site after a period of non-use.

'If the user can't use it, it doesn't work,' Killam said. 'It's as simple as that.'

Recently, the General Services Administration contracted with Computer Psychology Inc. to do a usability assessment of a new prototype home page. The results produced findings that allowed GSA to improve its site before it went online.

Bob Bailey, president of Computer Psychology Inc., co-developed software called the Usability Testing Environment, which is free to government users. For agencies testing a Web page, the software presents a question that the user must answer by looking on the site. The software then counts the time elapsed that a user takes to find the information, and looks for common routes users take, including mistaken ones. In addition to UTE, the research company also used a program called Morae, from Techsmith Corp. of Okemos, Mich., which collects mouse movements and synchronizes the data with audio and video feeds.

The results pointed to trouble spots with a recently redesigned GSA home page. For instance, the task that took the longest, finding information on car leasing, took up to twice as long as other tasks, indicating a lack of clear navigational cues. GSA rearranged its Web page as a result, improving by 20 percent the time it took users to find the lease information.

Step 5 Sharpen your language

This last step doesn't have to be a grand undertaking. It does not require test groups or surveys or sophisticated software. Nonetheless, the act of refining the language on a Web site can help the users greatly. Read the Web site, look for jargon and replace it with simpler language.

Most agency Web managers 'still have a little work to do,' in making their page text easier to understand, said Annetta Cheek, a member of the Plain Language Action and Information Network, a group of volunteers who work to help agencies make their written communications easier to understand. Cheek has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to help the agency make its own language easier to understand.

Some of the infractions include 'too many words, too many pages, too much out-of-date information,' Cheek said. 'Too many agencies still have information that is based on organizations rather than users.'

The group's advice? Keep the sentences short, use common, everyday words, organize the material, and keep the audience in mind.

'It's incredible what little changes can do,' Cheek said.

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