For SBA, creating a top-notch Web site proves easy

For SBA, creating a top-notch Web site proves easy

Agency wins awards by nixing bells and whistles

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

The Small Business Administration was digital when digital wasn't cool.

From a small online bulletin board to an award-winning Web site, the administration has been serving up information in electronic formats for years, said Dianne Gannon, the agency's Web manager.

SMA's Web site began as a bulletin board in 1992.

'It's a very large site,' Gannon said of 'And the comments that we are getting are that there is a wealth of information and easy-to-find information.'

There are 10,000 to 15,000 documents and 100 forms on the administration's top 20 sites, which have garnered a stack of awards and citations since 1994, Gannon said. In 1997, the site snagged Vice President Gore's Hammer Award.

20-second target

'We purposely have not put a lot of bells and whistles on the site and kept it pretty middle of the road as far as technology goes so that people aren't forced to go out and purchase a lot of technology to use the Web site,' she said.

The goal was to make the information readily accessible, even to users with slow systems, Gannon said.

'We are trying to be under a 20-second load time for every page,' said John Hood of User Technology Associates Group of Arlington, Va., who, as a contractor, serves as a project manager for SBA's Electronic Services.

'We looked at [the pages] using a 28.8-Kbps modem, knowing that 56 is the norm on most modems being sold and that 56 would be decent to use,' Hood said. 'We are trying to find the lowest common denominator.'

Hood checked the Web site out on various browsers, including most flavors of Netscape Navigator and Opera from Opera Software A/S of Oslo, Norway.

Most of the pages on the site were created using homemade macros, Hood said. Some items within sites, such as business cards, were done in ColdFusion Markup Language from Allaire Corp. of Minneapolis.

Designers used Adobe Photoshop 5.5 to create buttons and to crop images, making them more vivid and clearer, Hood said. The site also uses Adobe Portable Document Format files to make documents look as real as possible, he said.

'People like the simplicity of the site,' Hood said.

'Usually there are so many bells and whistles that you are dazzled to the point that you can't find anything. The banner across our homepage is about as jazzy and fancy as you are gonna see,' he said.

The site resides on a Sun Microsystems Enterprise 3000 server running SunSoft Solaris. The administration uses Sybase Adaptive Server from Sybase Inc. of Emeryville, Calif., as its database and serves up the site using Netscape Enterprise Server.

Gannon declined to give the server's processor speed or any version information for fear of hacking.

The administration's site is actually an offshoot of the bulletin board the SBA began in 1992, Hood said.

'It was easy to structure the Web with the same information,' he said, noting that customers using old technology, even really old 286 systems, still access the board. 'I wouldn't be surprised if there are some people out there still running Commodores.'

Accommodating all users is one of the administration's aims.

'They still need that help and information,' Hood said. 'There are things we learned and things that they've learned.'

Now SBA is checking to ensure that its sites comply with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To check compliance, Gannon's group has put the sites through an online Web reader offered at a site dedicated to Section 508 issues, with mixed results.

'Federal agencies are going to have problems with PDF forms,' she said. 'We are waiting to see if Adobe comes through with something.'


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