On Ready.gov, HSD reaches out to public

To present its homeland security face to the public, the Bush administration turned to the Advertising Council to design a $100 million print, broadcast and online campaign about public preparedness.

'One of the things they found was that there was a lot of information out there, but people weren't accessing it,' said Susan K. Neely, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for public affairs.

'That led us to the Web. You can layer the content on a Web site so that people can go as deep as they want,' she said.

The site, at www.ready.gov, became the centerpiece of a campaign supported by the new Homeland Security Department, the Ad Council, the Red Cross, and print, broadcast, cable and satellite organizations. Ruder Finn Interactive, a division of Ruder Finn Inc. of New York, began developing the site pro bono in late October for the White House Homeland Security Office.

'We worked around the clock with the department's IT people,' said Scott Schneider, senior vice president and director.

Content came primarily from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and military experts.

'The project was being pulled in many directions' because of input received from the public and private sectors, Schneider said. 'We were making content decisions up to the last week.'

When Ready.gov went live Feb. 19, it drew more than 1,700 feedback messages the first day, senior producer Brad McCormick said. 'Overall, it's been extremely positive,' he said.

From the outset there were three main design considerations, Neely said.

'We anticipated the load would be very large, since that was the point of the ad campaign,' she said. 'Security also was a concern. And, of course, it had to be accessible to handicapped users.'

To ensure easy navigation, focus groups in Baltimore, New York and Phoenix tried out the home page design. 'We reviewed the results with the Ad Council, the department and FEMA, and we modified the site based on the input,' McCormick said.

That kind of road testing is uncommon, he said. For a site aimed at a small audience, expert opinion might suffice, but 'in a page for 285 million Americans, we wanted to make sure nothing was missing,' he said.

The design team aimed for the lowest common technological denominator, so that a viewer with a 14.4-Kbps modem in a Pentium II computer running Internet Explorer 4.8 under Microsoft Windows 95 would have the same experience as a Pentium 4 user with a broadband connection. They used techniques such as minimizing and breaking up images to speed loading.

Team members now watch the traffic patterns to see whether some sections of the site are being ignored, so that pages or link buttons can be modified.

'The Web is very flexible,' McCormick said. 'We can get results instantly and make changes in real time.'

Designing for the disabled also got a lot of attention.

'On the accessibility side we learned a lot,' said Bonin Baugh, vice president and director of strategy and architecture at Ruder Finn. There was far more information about what makes a page accessible than about how to achieve it. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments set the baseline for the site but did not go far enough.

Making sense

'The 508 standards don't look at contrasting colors, how to read maps and other elements,' Baugh said. 'It's one thing to make a site readable by a text reader and another to make sense of it when it's read.'

The site tags graphics with descriptions for blind users.

'Security was a huge issue,' McCormick said. Although the site, hosted by Verio Inc. of Denver, is not on a sensitive HSD network, 'if it ever went down or was defaced, it would be terrible from a public-relations standpoint,' he said.

International Network Services Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., handles the site security.

The department will establish an editorial board to manage the site content. HSD next wants to provide information from local jurisdictions, Neely said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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