E-gov needs to put user first: Mullen

Government Web sites need to be more user-centric, said Leo Mullen, CEO of NavigationArts, in remarks yesterday at the Gilbane conference on content technologies in Washington.

Citizens today author their own pages on Myspace.com, and share YouTube videos with ease. "They expect the same kind of intuitive interactions with government."

The concept of e-gov ' make government services and products available online at a lower cost to taxpayers ' is "brilliant in its simplicity but devilishly difficult to administer," Mullen said.

The way that individual agencies have structured their Web organization has "left the user in the lurch." Some of this is due to the government's varied organizational background, Mullen said. Some of it is due to its breathtaking variety.

According to Mullen, there are three basic drivers of user-centricity: roles, goals and needs.

As a case in point, Mullen talked about how NavigationArts helped make the State Department's Consular Affairs Web site (travel.state.gov) more user-centric.

The mission of the site was to help manage how U.S. citizens travel and work in other countries. The bureau handles visas and passports and other documents and processes involved in citizens traveling abroad.

But the Web site was basically "a link farm" of hundreds of disconnected Web sites. Nobody knew how many documents or pages were on it. "It was a state secret," Mullen said.

The site had no functionality that correlated with the jobs people did everyday. "Nothing that correlated to users' roles and goals," he said.

Users had to bookmark pages that showed where to find visa or passport information, once they found them.

"People trying to move through this federated group of sites were completely slowed down," Mullen said.

Mullen was lucky to have a champion at the undersecretary level. "But don't understimate the power of bureacracy to thwart senior leadership."

Mullen mapped the site's content back to the roles and goals of users he interviewed. For some areas, he revamped the site into a dashboard model, and applied a set of filters that aggregated areas by topic and country. He also did considerable usability testing.

Mullen and NavigationArts revamped the Consular Affairs Web site in less than a year.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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