The seven habits of highly effective Web sites

How do I know? A few months ago I wrote about problems I had with the Postal Service
Web site and about the difficulty of using Portable Document Format files. The column got
a tremendous response, and I learned a lot from the readers who e-mailed me.


I didn't learn anything from the federal webmaster who said ignorant users like me were
the cause of all the problems. Hopefully, that guy can find work doing something besides
serving the public.


Otherwise, it is clear that many federal webmasters are hungry for feedback and
guidance. Like everyone else, they are limited in what they can do by a shortage of
resources and management support. I now have a greater appreciation for these limits.


Still, there are features that I would like to see and not see on federal Web pages.
Here are some ideas.


First, ease up on graphics. Make sure that your Web page can be viewed when images are
turned off. It is okay to use some graphics, but keep them to a reasonable level. And
don't use large images unless they are marked and avoidable by users.


My No. 1 pet graphic peeve is menus embedded in graphics. Menus must work just as well
for text-only viewers. Look at your site with images off through a 28.8- or
14.4-kilobit/sec modem.


Useful are links that let you return to the home page in either graphic or text
formats.


Second, support multiple document formats when possible. One thing my readers taught me
is the difficulty and expense of doing different formats. But you should recognize the
trade-offs for all participants. PDF is useless to some users, though it can make files
easy to create and is great for forms. ASCII can take longer to produce and may lose some
features, but everyone can handle ASCII files. Word processing formats are good, but not
everyone uses your word processor. Hypertext Markup Language is more universal, but the
files can require work.


For example, I spent 15 minutes stripping codes and reformatting a 19-page HTML
document into 10 pages of readable text.


Provide as many different formats as you can manage. Make sure a large document can be
downloaded in one click. Separate chapters make users download pieces and sew them
together themselves.


Third, add basic features. The Web pages of GCN readers have marvelous items, including
organization charts and employee directories with phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Organization charts are so valuable that I won't complain if you have to use graphics to
support them. Another nice feature is maps and directions to field offices.


Fourth, provide basic source materials. Reproduce your agency's listing from the
Government Manual. If your agency operates under one or more statutes, include the text.
Another basic item is the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register. Put
relevant portions on your site. And don't just link to a site that has the relevant text.
Take the time to collect the material and keep it up to date.


Fifth, use the medium. Don't ask users to send snail mail to get more information.
You should even avoid asking users to send e-mail for more information. Put available
information directly on the Web site so requests are not necessary.


Sixth, add advanced source documents. Agencies produce lots of descriptive materials.
For example, every agency has Privacy Act notices describing personal records that it
maintains. Put those notices on your Web page. Also, the Freedom of Information Act
requires agencies to publish rules, policy statements, indexes, opinions and manuals. Put
as many of these items as possible directly on your Web site.


The 1996 FOIA amendments will soon require greater use of electronic communications so
you may as well get ready. Accept FOIA requests online. This can be a little tricky so
check with your FOIA officer first. At a minimum, put FOIA how-to instructions online,
including agency addresses and rules.


Seventh, put in more links. Most federal sites do a pretty good job of linking to other
sites. Link to your headquarters site and to other agency components. Link to private
sites as well, but be careful. Make sure a link won't draw political fire. The last thing
your boss wants is a screaming letter from some congressman about a Web page link to an
extremist organization.


Ask users what they came looking for and didn't find. Web pages offer plenty of
opportunity for both creativity and utility. See what you can do to meet the needs of your
visitors.


Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations Subcommittee
on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington privacy and
information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.


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