Internaut: Here's the latest in usability lore from'surprise!'the feds

Shawn P. McCarthy

Agency webmasters always feel pressure to nail up more door knockers on their sites. After all, the taxpayers deserve to know what's there, and the agencies deserve to highlight their hard work in adding another database or resource.

Unfortunately, tacking things on will make a site start to look like an overcrowded bulletin board. Clutter hides good content.

A few smart government managers have started user experience testing before they set the final look, feel and navigation choices. You can see the difference such research makes. For example, the National Cancer Institute site, at www.nci.nih.gov, has streamlined choices and easy navigation for screen readers. That helps the site comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments.

You can get an idea of how seriously the site managers take testing by visiting www.usability.gov. They describe their metrics and provide links to other government Web design resources.

If you analyze a few usability studies, you'll learn obvious as well as subtle problems in design. Some of the most obvious:

Gratuitous use of gee-whiz technologies. A Macromedia Flash or 3-D interface is fine for gaming sites, but a government site with a service focus shouldn't turn away citizens who lack the latest plug-ins.

Dead-end pages without a standard way of navigating back to the top of a section or a site.

Shoddy maintenance of pages built from older templates. Their content becomes outdated, too, and visitors who arrive via search engines might never know that newer content is available. Any link to an official document should indicate that the latest version appears at a specific uniform resource locator.

If you provide sitewide search, make sure you index the correct directories. Let visitors search by relevance and by date. And establish a quality-assurance process overseen by someone other than a webmaster. It's too easy to miss problems in one's own work. Find a fresh eye.

Another government unit that deals well with usability is the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Visualization and Usability Group, at zing.ncsl.nist.gov/WebTools. It has an interesting metrics test bed where you can download usability tools.

For ideas how to shorten the time to learn or complete a task, visit www.usabilityfirst.com. For a look at human factors engineering and advances in interface design, see usableweb.com.

The Design Institute's site at the Illinois Institute of Technology, www.id.iit.edu, illustrates how heavily design affects a user's experience. A good resource for user experience in ubiquitous computing is www.cs.waikato.ac.nz/~mattj/ubicomp.html.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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