Usability training ? useful, but...

Department of Health and Human Services' Usability.gov Web site

A usability training program launched last week reflects officials' increased emphasis on making government Web sites and online services easier to navigate, but it might not be enough to promote a concept not mandated by law, experts say.

Usability University, sponsored by the General Services Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, allows Web masters and content managers to learn best practices and techniques for improving users' experiences with online government services. The program includes free seminars and fee-based, in-depth courses for federal staff and contractors.

"We're rolling out Usability University to raise awareness and get folks trained and make some resources available," said Keith Thurston, assistant deputy associate administrator in GSA's Office of Electronic Government and Technology. "We have a network of people [who] are usability experts [who] are moving the cause forward."

Officials at several agencies, such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, have been focusing on usability in a coordinated effort. The university's courses and seminars, which are based on a guide on Web design and usability guidelines published by NCI, take a governmentwide approach.

Ben Shneiderman, author and computer science professor at the University of Maryland, said previous ventures with usability were sporadic, led by a few dedicated individuals. Internet users' needs have grown, increasing the need for a centralized approach and more government attention, he said.

"Certainly over the last few years, the commitment to providing government services to a wide range of people has changed the game," Shneiderman said. "It requires a deeper, stronger commitment. I think we see positive movement that it's becoming institutionalized."

Taking a few usability courses doesn't make a Web designer an instant expert, said Bill Killam, founder and president of User-Centered Design Inc., and Usability University should be a starting point for greater agency commitment.

"The courses are valuable for raising the awareness, but the danger is making people think anybody can do this, and it's a cookbook," he said.

Unlike its close cousin, accessibility, which is mandated under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, usability doesn't carry the heavy hand of the law. It requires a process of thorough design and multiple user tests, but the resources and managers' support are not always there.

Although the courses are needed, requirements ensure the work gets done, said Whitney Quesenbery, principal consultant at Whitney Interactive Design LLC and the university's first presenter.

"I think it's important to build support and knowledge, but I also see what happened with accessibility," she said. "We got serious about it when the laws got serious about it. It doesn't happen until someone says, 'It shall happen,' and laws are one of the ways we say 'shall.' "

Some agency officials realized usability by building it into the project plan though task orders, Quesenbery said. "Without those task orders, the work would have never been done," she said.

Jakob Nielsen, usability expert and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, said training courses alone will not significantly improve how agency officials approach the design and implementation of Web sites and online services.

For example, they should be required to set aside a certain percentage of the project cost for user research. Project cost and schedule overruns usually result from basing work on system requirements rather than user needs, he said.

"This should be factored in from the beginning," Nielsen said. "Project [leaders] need to drastically change how they are done. It has to be a much deeper way of thinking."

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A usability curriculum

Usability University, launched this month, allows Web masters and content managers to learn and share policies, methods and best practices for creating usable sites and online services. Here are a few topics slated to be covered at the seminars in the coming months:

Designing the user interface, which involves techniques for creating usable interface designs and resources for creating better user performance and satisfaction.

Using the STEP508 program for preventing accessibility errors, involving methods for using automated tools to evaluate accessibility and fix errors.

Designing search pages, which entails strategies for understanding users' search needs and building usable search interfaces.

Moving forms to the Web, which involves ways to make online forms accessible.

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