GSA site plays to the masses

GSA site plays to the masses

Consumer center tries whimsical method to compete with commercial sites

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

Where on the Web can you look up the latest product recalls, find facts about college financial aid or work a puzzle to pass the time?



The answer: the home page of the Federal Consumer Information Center, part of the General Services Administration. One of the oldest federal Web sites, it was embellished this year with shopping cart tools and whimsical graphics in a quest to become, as center director Teresa Nasif told a House committee last spring, 'the consumer's help desk for everyday life.'

The information center, whose Web address at www.pueblo.gsa.gov pays homage to its longtime postal address in Pueblo, Colo., dispenses hundreds of electronic pamphlets about family and consumer issues.

Like the center's paper catalog, the Web pages are decorated with illustrations and comments in large, easy-to-read type.

'We're trying to compete with the commercial sites out there,' said Jerry Young, the consumer center's division director for program support and the de facto webmaster. The site's public-service advertisements in print publications claim that 'nine out of 10 mice' prefer it.

Young and the rest of the consumer center staff work at GSA headquarters. The Pueblo distribution center, made famous over the years by the printed Consumer Information Catalog, belongs to the Government Printing Office.

An executive order established the consumer center in 1970. Its original paper catalog was devised a few years later, publications and media division director Mary Levy said.

In the early 1990s, the center experimented with a dial-up bulletin board system that drew about 25,000 downloads per year. But dial-up use declined steeply once the Web gained acceptance, and the center shut down the BBS two years ago.

In the early days of electronic initiatives, the center hired a contractor to type the text of its pamphlets in basic ASCII format, Young said. When the first version of the Web site went live in 1994, only about 175 pamphlets were available electronically, Young said. Now there are about 550, many in two or three formats.

Over the years, center staff members have ported most of the text documents to Hypertext Markup Language for more attractive layout, and they have added Adobe Portable Document Format versions.

Easy does it

Many agencies now send their pamphlets to the center already in HTML and PDF, Young said. Everything generally is in either HTML or text with PDF as a third choice, because PDF is more difficult for less technically savvy people to handle.

For example, the site's food section lists 22 brochures in either text or HTML form, and only two pamphlets in both HTML and PDF.

Because converting documents to electronic text is time-consuming, the center is choosy about what it posts online, Levy said.

'I think that's one of the values that we bring to consumers,' she said. 'We've gone out to look at the vast amount of material available. It represents the best of federal information.'

The consumer center measures its response rate in page views. During its first year, the Web site tallied 1 million views; for fiscal 2000, it so far is on track to pass 12 million views.

GSA hosts the consumer Web site on a dual-processor Sun Ultra 2 server running Netscape Enterprise Server 3.63, Young said.

Down at first

For the first two years of the site's existence, it provided only downloads. During fiscal 1997, as electronic commerce gained popularity, it began taking pamphlet orders via the Web site and a toll-free phone number.

'It's completely changed the way we've done business,' Young said. This year the center is getting 48 percent of its orders through postal mail, 12 percent via the Web and 40 percent by telephone.

The current system works backward and forward, Levy said. Some consumers order a couple of pamphlets from the printed catalog, then read about the Web site in the catalog and check it out, she said. Other people start by looking at online pamphlets, want a print version of something and order the hard copy sent from Pueblo.

To build the Web site, the center staff primarily uses HotMetal Pro from SoftQuad Software Ltd. of Toronto plus Microsoft FrontPage. The staff designs graphics with Adobe PhotoShop and Paint Shop Pro from Jasc Software Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

To come up with the latest site design, the consumer center assembled a task force of GSA colleagues''not all technical people,' Levy said'to make suggestions from an average consumer's viewpoint.

'Our technical people know exactly where you're supposed to click,' Young said. 'We're trying to make it easier for people. This may be their first time on the Web. By bringing together all the people in the office, we're able to improve the overall navigation.'

Keeping the Web site up to date is the biggest task, Young said. The three-member Web staff tracks page changes in a Microsoft Access database. One person has the assignment of checking the entire site for possible changes every Monday morning.

Maintenance of the site matters even more than its initial design, because accuracy wins the trust of users, Young said.

Selling paper pamphlets over the Web'the center collects a congressionally mandated $2 handling fee for each hard-copy order'required the staff to make a foray into the world of electronic-commerce software.

'We spent a lot of time finding good e-commerce packages that don't cost an arm and a leg,' Young said. Some of the packages cost tens of thousands of dollars to license.

Currently the site uses GoldPaint shopping cart software from E-Commerce Solutions Inc. of Temecula, Calif. Document viewing remains separate from the shopping pages. Young and his staff now are testing Dansie Shopping Cart software from Dansie Website Design of Moreno Valley, Calif. Eventually they want to integrate the document viewing and shopping functions.

The center's latest project is revising the 1998-99 Consumer's Resource Handbook, a 144-page document with an online home, at www.pueblo.gsa.gov/crh/respref.htm. It soon will be republished as the Consumer Action Handbook with contact information for thousands of public- and private-sector organizations.

Since January, the center has incorporated GSA's old Federal Information Center, established in 1966 as a single point of telephone contact for information about the government, Levy said.

Levy and the staff at the consumer center are working with the FIC contractor to set up a large database used by the FIC call center, Young said.

The FCIC Web site is also collecting e-mail addresses for a future electronic mailing list that will notify subscribers when new consumer information becomes available. The mail list will probably start up this fall, Levy said.

Because the paper Consumer Information Catalog has been known for its catchy advertisements, the Web version incorporates some humor, too.

An entire section is devoted to fun items such as a word puzzle, a Java applet jigsaw puzzle of the latest catalog's cover and QuickTime videos of classic TV ads for the catalog.

Center staff members put the videos on a portable computer to show agencies and public-sector organizations. 'It's a great way to explain the program,' Young said.

Mike Tanski of the center's staff found the jigsaw applet on a Norwegian Web site that offered it free for noncommercial use. He adapted the applet to work with the FCIC catalog covers, Young said.

A funny site

As an example of the site's humor, someone wrote this comment about its gallery of past catalog covers: 'Ima Fake, from the Pueblo Art Critics Association, exclaims, 'FCIC's Catalog Covers are pure genius! FCIC's use of bold, masterful strokes and astonishing color take the art world by storm. A must-see for art lovers everywhere.''

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