What makes a Web site -- form or function?

Readers object to criteria used for list of '12 bad government sites'

What do you look for in a Web site? Is the site’s design important to your user experience, or do you care more about content and functionality?

The question comes up in readers’ responses to our post on Information Week’s list of the 12 Worst Government Web Sites. The criticisms IW aimed at the sites, which ranged from those of the Army Special Operations Command to the State of Illinois to the nation of Cambodia, in many cases took issue with the sites’ design. The use of color, white space, fonts and images all played a part in how IW judged them. 

However, our readers disagreed with that approach. 

“I expected to hear about sites that gave no information, had broken links, prevented the user from finding the information needed, etc.,” wrote one reader, “not whining about pixilated JPEGs and being ‘stuck in 1997.’ ”

“I echo comments above about focus on form – fonts, colors, pics, scrolling,” wrote Ed in Monterey, Calif. Ed also implied that how one views a Web site could be a generational issue, writing, “Congratulations, YOUNG man, for reminding us how much more important form is than content."

Generational or not, it’s clear that some readers have a different view of what makes a Web site good or bad. And at least one other wondered about the definition. “I read your article and hunted around for a definition of a ‘downright awful user experience.’ You offered none, nor did you offer any explanation of any type of criteria you used to determine these were the worst. Simply saying something is bad doesn’t make it so.”

Several readers looked at the list in relation to the White House’s Open Government Directive, although IW didn't mention the directive – we brought that up in our introduction. The directive is one reason the list drew our interest, although our mention of it may have caused a little confusion.

“Does Cambodia's Web site really fall under the Open Government Directive?” wrote one reader. We think IW was just trying to add an international example.

“It's one thing to review the top 12 worst sites, it's another thing to talk about worst implementations of the Open Government Directive,” wrote a reader identified as a state Web designer. “While the [National Transportation Safety Board] does have a modest Web site for the Open Government Directive, many of the other links provided here do not. So it's hardly a fair article to the victims. Additionally, the directive is a monumental challenge for some government entities, many faced with budget cuts, staffing cuts, privacy issues, and a lack of expertise for implementing the Open Government Directive on their level. … Complain or point and laugh as much as you'd like (I've done it enough myself), but until one really understands what they've got to work with for staffing/funding, taking pot shots at government Web sites is like kicking an overweight, two-legged lame dog, barely able to hold itself up. Go easy on them.”

Meanwhile, one reader offered a couple of potential additions to the list, writing, “Somewhat ironically, Regulations.gov and OMB's Web site are true enemies of government transparency and are guaranteed to provide a horrible user experience.” But could you define that, please?

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Reader Comments

Thu, Jul 8, 2010 J.Short Louisiana

There is a wealth of information available on the web free of charge about usability in general and the usability of web interfaces/web sites in particular. There is no reason for a poorly designed site except ignorance that is a lack of knowledge of the principles of web usability for a poorly designed web site. It takes as much time and staff to design a web site that complies with the basic principles of usability as it does to design one that does not. And if you don't have the knowledge in house, for a few thousand dollars you can have an expert in web usability review a site (preferably pre-production) and make recommendations (in priority order) for improvements. Considering that far more people will interact with a government agency via the web than will call or visit, 5 or 10 or even 20 or 30K is a small price to pay to design a usable public site. Just using plain English to explain processes, procedures, requirements and rules would be a great start. Why should the public have lower expectations for a government web site than customers do for a commercial one? After all, we, as taxpayers, are paying for the service.

Thu, Jul 8, 2010 Jeffrey A. Williams Frisco Texas

Form should follow function in web site design and deployment. We should all be careful when considering content on Government websites yet should make suggestions. My 2 biggest gripes in Government Web sites are that many are not adaquately secure, and the contact information for personell is less than adaquate. ?E-mail addresses for all government departments and agencies should be plainly avaliable and are too often times not.

Thu, Jul 8, 2010

Skip the eye candy, skip the animation, skip the slide shows. I am on your web site looking for something. If it isn't evident where to find it in the first few seconds, I will go elsewhere, and probably won't return. And remember, not everybody has a broadband connection. The '3 click' rule referenced above is a good filter. If I don't at least see a pointer to what I am looking for by the third click, well, you had your chance.

Thu, Jul 8, 2010

What's interesting to me is that IW has the guts to say, "these are the 12 worst government sites". Whether it's true or not, I think ugliness in all forms should be discouraged. I was just thankful we weren't on the list! That sort of thing can make the high mucky mucks look bad. Sooner or later it all falls on the head of webmasters an designers.

Thu, Jul 8, 2010

The worst sites are not the ones open to the public. The worst top 3 inside web sites are: DTS - The Defense Travel System - has been broken 8 out of last 10 months, offered me a hotel room 100 miles from my travel site and refused to rent a car anyplace other than an airport. Navy ERP (a SAP installation) - You have to work around the software to get things done, if a supplier changes you cannot change that field in an approved purchase order. You have to junk it and start over. And it will yell at you in German (Achtung!) Mynavair - Very busy page with duplicate entry points (e.g. training) that do not bring up the same options, most annoying when the actual training is on Navy NKO and the detour to mynavair was unnecessary.

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