How to make sure Web visitors get the right message

The range of responsibilities falling to Webmasters becomes wider each year,

and the rapid expansion of technical matters means that they must race just

to stay informed of new developments.

Technology, demands by management and pressing security issues can scatter

a Webmaster's concentration. The latest technologies and code can keep a

World Wide Web site secure, but maintenance of a site involves making sure

it meets customers' needs.

When a site is being developed, a group of managers decide what elements

should be on an agency's Web site. Presumably, such decisions are made periodically

to update the site.

However, once the site is online, responsibility for maintaining the

technical aspects and presentation of information often is deposited on

the Webmaster's desk.

Even if the site has a staff that attends to online sections, it is

difficult to know if the information serves the interests of the agency,

its programs and its customers.

Webmasters can employ several methods to check whether a Web site is

fulfilling its mission. Reviewing logs and output of other software programs

can indicate where customers access information. Surveys conducted by outside

organizations using focus groups of users and employees are useful measurements,

but they require budgeting and oversight.

One of the most effective methods is free and uses information already

at hand: listening to users of the site. Feedback can be invaluable.

Customers who detail a complaint are providing pure gold and can provide

guidance Webmasters may not have considered.

Although I started this column railing against all the matters that

devour a Webmaster's time, it seems contradictory to be asking Webmasters

to consider setting aside time for listening to customers. But gathering

information from users may be the most helpful way to improve your Web site.

Webmasters need to listen to users passively and actively. Passive listening

includes reviewing statistics, reports about comments from customers or

listings of most requested information. The information can be helpful to

making Webmasters aware of links that need to be relocated to change visibility

or to improve navigation, or when a page needs to be redesigned.

Active listening makes the Webmaster look at the site from a customer's

perspective. Answering a user's e-mail request often requires the Webmaster

to navigate through the site, noting the steps necessary to move from the

home page to an information source.

It is an educational process that helps to familiarize the customer

with the site. The task of clicking through links on pages can reveal a

need for improved layout, highlight navigational difficulties and locate

inoperative links. If finding information is difficult for the Webmaster,

it is an indicator that the operation is not likely to be any easier for

a visitor.

Agencies should consider a site's main audience when deciding how to

present information. A Web site designed for users having access to high-speed

equipment and fast connections can offer material — such as audio and video — that exploits those resources. But agencies should remember that most

users will be accessing government sites using telephone lines and consumer-grade

computers.

A Java-laden site may load quickly on the Webmaster's high-powered machine,

but to users in millions of offices and homes, the wait for pages to load

may be intolerable. Those individuals missed your agency's message. Ask

yourself if your audience really needs all the Java, large images or other

multimegabyte offerings. If the users of your Web site can quickly retrieve

information, your agency likely has a successful site.

— Powell is the Agriculture Department's Internet and intranet Webmaster.

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