DefenseLink site has open arms for diverse users

DefenseLink site has open arms for diverse users

DOD's home page describes the department and its mission, then funnels users to specific areas

By Shawn P. McCarthy

Special to GCN

Webmasters for federal sites face the challenge of presenting a single public face instead of multiple personas. And the front door to any federal Web presence must have a single welcome mat for vastly different users.


The Defense Department's central Web site, DefenseLink, controls home page clutter while providing a wealth of information that is of interest to multiple groups of users.


The Defense Department's central Web site, at www.defenselink.mil, caters successfully to many customers.

A joint project of the American Forces Information Service, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and the Defense Technical Information Center, DefenseLink is the official home page for DOD and the Pentagon. It resides on a complex series of Unix systems in Northern Virginia along with about 80 other DTIC Web services.

DefenseLink funnels its diverse visitors to appropriate areas on a sprawling network that leads to other DOD sites. Members of the public who know little about DOD structure can easily search for information. To inform first-time visitors of the range of services, DefenseLink has an upper branding bar with links and a search bar that follows visitors throughout the site, plus a front-page scroll box listing DOD sites of interest.

Examples of the informative resources for the uninitiated are a page that tells how to read rank insignias on military uniforms and a DOD 101 slide that presents a detailed overview of the department's global infrastructure, mission and worldwide presence.

Any federal Web site could easily duplicate this concept, educating visitors about the agency and its mission before they plow deeper into the site.


DefenseLink at a glance
System details:

Front end: A multiprocessor server runs Unix in a distributed environment of multiple application and service layers across other Unix systems.

High-speed storage devices and high-capacity Internet connections: Because of ongoing concerns about hacker attacks, the Defense Technical Information Center would not reveal hardware and software specifics.

File storage: DefenseLink and other DTIC Web servers share a dedicated, high-capacity 750G system on the DTIC LAN.

Staff: Six people, including server, network and database administrators, share their time with other Defense Department Web services. As host, DTIC supports the technical infrastructure. DTIC and the American Forces Information Service help out with a diverse, shared staff of up to 10 programmers, four graphics specialists, two Web strategists and a technical writer.

Page views: The count of about 1 million views per week, or about 142,860 per day, is rising steadily.

Applications: Homegrown applications use Perl scripts and Apple WebObjects. Content providers and managers upload and edit files from various interfaces.

Back end: The system uses Oracle Corp. relational databases.

Key staff:

Chris Unger, DefenseLink project manager, American Forces Information Service; Terry Davis, DefenseLink technical manager, Defense Technical Information Center; Bob Harner, lead software engineer under contract from DynCorp of Reston, Va.; Harold Heilsnis, director for public communications, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs; Navy Capt. Tim Taylor, director of Defense information, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs; Army Col. Mitchell Marovitz, director of media operations, American Forces Information Service.


Repeat visitors to DefenseLink often are hunting for news stories, sales leads or information for reports. They need a quick way to get into the content they know is there without having to drill through several pages. They can cruise right off the front page into the news area, budget information or a great Doing Business with DOD link.

The front page also has an area for rotating news headlines. Most federal site managers know how important it is to have fresh content to show off a dynamic environment.

DefenseLink gets large spikes in its news area traffic every time there is a military deployment.

DefenseLink achieved its usefulness for dissimilar user groups from the work of Michelle Yeh and Alaina Kanfer of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., DTIC spokesman Terry Davis said.

'The development was not done willy-nilly,' Davis said. Areas were developed 'when there was an expressed requirement for it. We're not a site that's trying to gain market share. We respond to specific business needs.'

The result serves many needs without excessive clutter. Davis said the types of visitors to the site are split between civilian and military users. DOD employees look to DefenseLink for a high-level view of the department, as well as information about specifics such as child care and retirement benefits. The Defense Almanac's lists and flow charts show employees where they fit into the vast DOD establishment.

A redesign is under development to improve navigation and content integration.

Other government agencies come to DefenseLink to find DOD data for their own use, but this group is not served quite as well from the home page. Users have to click into a site map to find links to DOD policies, records, and ways to find people or data.

Navigate with ease

The challenge for big sites such as DefenseLink is to make universal navigation over multiple locations possible. DefenseLink's branding is not yet universal. Clicking into the site far enough takes the user to other DOD sites, making a return to DefenseLink difficult. And users who start off from other sites might never find their way to DefenseLink and its resources.

DefenseLink's mission and branding are strong enough that its navigation aids could be universal across all related Web sites. It might do well to copy this function from commercial Web portals, which generally do not change the look and feel of sites they absorb but usually provide easy navigation across sister sites.

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


What's good, what needs work
'News stories on the front page rotate daily and sometimes hourly for breaking news.

'The news area combines feeds from multiple sources: the Defense Department news service, the Directorate of Defense Information, the American Forces Press Service and DOD press offices.

'There's a news photo archive and RealAudio sound files of press briefings. One area even lists newly signed contracts'public information that every federal site ought to provide.

'The 'news by e-mail' sign-up feature keeps everyone informed and takes a load off the Web server because newshounds need not visit constantly. There are 30,000 subscribers.

'Information about top DOD leaders, posted on the front page, points to their offices and contact points.

'Page weight is acceptable throughout. The designers took care to reduce the size of graphics and to present information in digestible chunks.

'A Web specials area rotates items every few weeks, highlighting special projects unobtrusively and effectively. An archive is available.


'Although the scrolling menu reduces clutter on the front page, it masks the range of information offered and increases the risk that visitors will miss the particular resources they seek. It would be better to show all major sections in a clickable directory.

'DOD 101 is a great resource, but the converted PowerPoint-like presentation has no embedded links. The designers should redo it with hyperlinks.

'Integration of content into search results could be better, both inside DefenseLink and across other Defense Department sites. For example, a search for news leads to old news stories and fails to recommend DefenseLink's own central news page. Search results also miss the full breadth of what's available.

'Visitors should be able to search individual directories. The publications area can target a search to publications only. It would be good to do the same thing in the budget area, the Defense Almanac area and so on.

'Cross-pollination could be better between the DefenseLink site, the service's Web sites, and even the State Department and White House sites.

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