Does your Web site meet its users' needs?

Does your Web site meet its users' needs?

Agencies need to focus on citizens, analyst advises

By Susan M. Menke

GCN Staff

The Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 'is unequivocally the best practice in the government Internet space.'






















Most government sites miss mark on usability
Lists of frequently asked questions75%
JavaScript used72%
Menu60%
Posted privacy policy52%
No e-mail response to queries52%
Downloaded players required31%
Search function27%
Frames used26%
Animation used17%
E-mail replies within a day12%
E-mailed newsletters11%
Streaming audio10%
Patterned background7%
Toll-free number on home page5%
Games and peer chat4%
Polling2%
Shopping basket2%
Free e-mail1%
Printer-friendly version1%
Languages other than English1%


That's the conclusion of Jupiter Media Metrix, which recently studied 81 federal and state government sites.

Preston Dodd, a senior analyst for the New York media research company, said analysts talked to site managers and senior executives and surveyed consumers to determine whether government sites are furthering 'e-bureaucracy or e-democracy.'

He said government sites so far serve as an additional channel to disseminate official information, exhibiting 'a strong sense of decorum' and trying to unite internal agency efforts rather than focusing on outside users' needs.

Lack of central integration and fragmentation of funding have kept government sites from adding many features popular on commercial sites, Dodd said. Lists of frequently asked questions are usually inadequate, he said, and the absence of languages other than English 'reinforces the digital divide.'

The CDC site, at www.cdc.gov, was the only one Jupiter surveyed that offers the choice of Spanish language content.

Eighty-eight percent of the sites, however, had employment and recruitment information, and about three-quarters of the sites had accessible forms and records as well as kids' sections.
'
Because of the fragmented oversight and funding, Dodd said, 'the click-overs are confusing.' He criticized the relatively large numbers of clicks necessary to find desired information on government sites, saying the ideal number is two clicks.


California's Web site drew praise for offering information in a variety of formats.


After a few click-overs, he said, the page appearance often changes completely, or the user may be routed to a different agency's site.

Dodd reserved his harshest criticism for sites that had broken links'84 percent'and those that provided e-mail addresses but failed to answer queries within two weeks'52 percent.

'The customer expectation is three hours or less' to receive a reply to an e-mailed query, he said.

'State and federal sites are different animals,' Dodd said. A state site has checks and balances that force it to prioritize how it presents its executive, legislative and judicial functions. Many state sites provide help for things such as taxes and licenses.

Room for improvement

Even so, he said, 'There are a lot of static sites.' Only 6 percent have online contract bidding, and none so far allows online voter registration or voting.

California's site, at www.state.ca.us, drew commendation from Jupiter Media Metrix for offering a choice of plain Hypertext Markup Language, text-only, Java or animated formats to serve the broadest possible range of users. And Georgia's was called the most innovative site because of its live audio coverage of state Legislature proceedings.

'When you design by committee, you don't get good integration,' Dodd said. Government sites that compel users to download an external application such as Adobe Acrobat reader 'are underserving their constituencies.'

The best practice that Jupiter Media Metrix found is to have an executive sponsor to shepherd the site and assure the use of interoperable hardware and software, Dodd said.

'Outsourcing is the reality. The role of the information technology staff is different now,' he said. 'We recommend that the Web effort stay on the strategic side, not on the technical side.'

The bottom line, Dodd said, is to keep asking, 'Is it a bolt-on site, or does it focus on the core mission?'

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