What makes a Web site work?

With the Web, our expectations of government service have
changed. We go online because we want answers.

For example, I do not spend afternoons in my comfy chair saying,
'I love to read about government grants so I'll go
online and enjoy lots of words.' Instead I say, 'I want
a grant. What do I need to do? How can I accomplish what I want to
accomplish? And how can government content support me?'

Similarly, citizens don't want 'welcome to our Web
site' content. They want content that tells a story, inspires
action or supports them in meeting their performance goals.

Web content is about performance ' directing people to
content they want so they can accomplish what they want to
accomplish. I strongly believe the best government Web sites help
citizens (and government workers) get their jobs done.

Researcher Jacob Nielson (www.useit.com) explains that people
think of the Web experience as a 'hot potato' '
they want to go into a site, get what they need, and leave. Clear
content advocate Gerry McGovern (www.gerrymcgovern.com) refers to
the 'long neck' ' his research graphically shows
how all sites have primary tasks people want to accomplish.

For sites to work, they must include a navigational structure --
organization and labeling -- that supports how people think.
Categories must make sense and the text must be presented following
principles of plain language ' audience focused, concise,
clear and personal.

E-government initiatives are guided by three principles: be
citizen-centered, results-oriented and market-based. Similarly, the
best Web sites are about performance ' directing people to
content so they can accomplish what they want to accomplish.

Some estimate there are 24,000 U.S. government sites. I've
not been to all of them, nor do I know anyone who has. But here are
a few I believe meets a 'best criteria' of structure
based on audience, purpose and context. A couple of my choices,
www.usa.gov and www.cancer.gov, are not listed below because they
are already highlighted in this issue.

  • www.loc.gov/topics/africanamericans/ exemplifies content pages
    developed by the Library of Congress around themes. The page serves
    as an example of how content from different locations across the
    Library site is brought together to support more contextual

  • www.plainlanguage.gov shows how usable content and structure
    can be developed with little budget. This site was planned and
    built by the volunteer members of the federal government
    plain-language network, my information architecture students and
    other volunteers.

  • employees.faa.gov shows an example of an agency with
    approximately 17,000 employees who want to get their jobs done. The
    site succeeds because the agency built a structure based on what
    people wanted to do.

  • www.webcontent.gov provides an example of good web practice.
    The structure and content is focused on supporting the community
    using the site.

  • www.usability.gov provides guidance for developing sites people
    can use.

  • www.usaservices.gov presents categorized information to support
    Government customer service. The categories are well defined and
    easy to interpret. I would like to see this site go deeper into
    content though.

  • www.childwelfare.gov/ provides an example of information
    clustered into topic groupings to support different constituent

  • www.nichcy.org serves as a clearinghouse for Government
    information on disabilities. It's organized to support
    different audiences and has an intuitive structure and clear
    content that helps people gather information and interact with the

Thom Haller ([email protected]) teaches principles of
performance-based information architecture and usability. He has
developed and run facilitator-led workshops for federal agencies,
associations and corporations, and is a frequent speaker at
Internet architecture and usability conferences. He also teaches
locally via contract and at the Graduate School, USDA. Thom serves as a senior consultant for Customer Carewords.


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