SBA: Web simplicity is a virtue

SBA home page

The Small Business Administration concentrated on customers when completing the first phase of its Web site redesign.

Agency officials hope the new design will eliminate weaknesses that focus groups and usability tests identified in the site's earlier versions.

"Our main focus was to make the Web site more customer-focused," said Diane Gannon, SBA's director of productivity enhancement.

SBA's site was one of the first federal Web sites when it was launched in 1992, but the agency has updated it only twice. Each week, more than 1.2 million visitors come to the site, which contains more than 50,000 documents.

The redesign effort started in November 2002 and has cost SBA $100,000. SBA employees completed most of the work, and other responsibilities were outsourced to two companies — one to complete the design, the other to complete the mapping.

According to focus groups, the site's primary problem was that relevant information was difficult to find and understand. SBA responded by uncovering buried information. To simplify the site, the agency removed excessive jargon and confusing terminology, and it added tutorials and training for customers to learn about doing business with the federal government.

One major structural change is the creation of five dimensions designed to guide customers through the small- business process from start to finish: starting a business, financing a business, managing and growing a business, business opportunities, and disaster assistance.

The site's restructuring is modeled on FirstGov, the federal government Web portal that the General Services Administration oversees. FirstGov, which recently received the Innovations in American Government Award, is organized topically so users can easily access government information.

Through the Web Content Managers Group and the Cross-Agency Portal Working Group, GSA and other federal agencies share experiences and best practices that better serve citizens, according to M.J. Jameson, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

She said FirstGov helps orient all federal Web sites toward citizens by sharing feedback it receives about other agencies' sites. "Firstgov.gov is also called on frequently to provide advice on how we develop content, how we do usability testing and more," Jameson added.

As for SBA's redesign, "the most critical change is the emphasis on how the customer wants to view our products and services, as opposed to how we want to present them," said Ron Miller, senior adviser to the SBA administrator for e-government.

Many other government agencies have recently updated their Web sites to resemble FirstGov, including the Department of Health and Human Services and NASA.

"The most important thing in the design of a Web site is determining your audience and what their information needs are," said Bill Hall, an HHS spokesman. "That's what we did at HHS when we redesigned our site."

Similarly, when NASA restructured its site in February, officials emphasized organizing it to make the most sense to customers, not necessarily to reflect the agency's structure.

"It's important to keep in mind that the public doesn't know how a department is organized," said Brian Dunbar, NASA's Internet services manager.

Although SBA officials have significantly improved the site's usability, they acknowledge that they still have work to do. Phase 1 covered the changes necessary for users to find and understand relevant information, but the next phase will involve deeper transformations.

"We've only gone surface-level," Gannon said. "Phase 2 will be going through a lot of these pages and rewriting. We know we've got a lot left to do, but this is our start."

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Web redesign

The Small Business Administration has made its Web site simpler to use and understand. SBA officials took the following steps:

* Removed excessive jargon and confusing terminology.

* Added tutorials and training to help users learn how to do business with the federal government.

* Created five information categories designed to guide users through the small-business process: starting a business, financing a business, managing and growing a business, business opportunities, and disaster assistance.

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