The people speak, USA.gov listens

The team behind USA.gov, the federal government's official Web portal, constantly monitors feedback from the site's visitors. The site's recent redesign was based largely on this feedback.

'We are really big on listening to what the public wants and how they want it,' said Martha Dorris, the General Services Administration's deputy associate administrator for citizen services, Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

GSA, which runs USA.gov, held focus groups and did three rounds of usability testing as the agency made iterative changes to the design, said Bev Godwin, director of USA.gov content and best practices.

'People complained that there was great information, but it was cluttered and hard to find,' Godwin said. 'So we didn't take information off. We just redesigned it and made the site less cluttered.'

People felt like they could trust that USA.gov was official U.S. government information, Godwin said. 'So we did things to strengthen that trust by posting the official seal on each page.'

The redesigned site adds some Web 2.0 features such as instant messaging and Web chat. 'We wanted to add the features that young people like,' Godwin said. They want to be able to get through to a human being right away to get their questions answered. Godwin tells about how when her son went off to college, he told her that she had to get instant messaging, because 'e-mail is for old people.'

As the government's main portal, USA.gov has the job of referring visitors to other agencies' Web sites. John Murphy, director of USA.gov's technologies, calls the relationship between USA.gov and the other agency Web sites 'a marriage. We hear from them and what people want. It helps us focus on what people want on USA.gov.'

USA.gov also upgraded its search capabilities. Now it's using search tools from Vivisimo Inc. as well as Microsoft's Windows Live search. The search box also is now in a more prominent location, in the center of the page at the top.

The redesign took into account small details, such as making sure links are identified by underscores. 'You have to be continually looking for incremental enhancements,' Murphy said.

USA.gov is more task-oriented than many government sites, Godwin said. People come to the site to do something. USA.gov helps them get it done online.

Since the launch of USA.gov on Jan. 18, more than 23.7 million people have visited the site.

GSA is setting the pace for usability and Web design for the federal government. The agency has created a whole education curriculum around Web content at its Web Manager University. Last year GSA trained 1,300 Web managers through the university, and more than 1,500 students are registered for this year.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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