VA site offers alternate route

Many federal Web pages seem to prefer automation over creativity to a fault, ignoring opportunities to create useful Web content.

Because many federal Webmasters still edit content as one of their "other duties as assigned," it stands to reason that they'd avoid situations that would increase demand for their site and, thus, expand their workload.

But the popularity of a site doesn't necessarily mean a heavier editorial burden, even for sites that require a lot of editing. Case in point: The VA HyperFAQ (www.va.gov/hyperFAQ), a manually built index that helps users navigate through the top 200 Web sites in the Department of Veterans Affairs by answering simple yes-or-no questions about the information they want.

Let's say you're a real estate agent who writes VA home loans. The first question on the HyperFAQ is, "I'm looking for information on how to receive a benefit." You'd answer "No" because you're actually helping the VA provide a benefit. The next question is, "I'm looking for news, press releases, forms, publications or legal information." Again, you'd answer "No." The next question is, "I'm looking for general information about the VA, a specific office or program, Veterans Day information or Memorial Day information." You'd answer "Yes" because the home loan program is a specific program. The last question is, "I'm interested in information about a specific VA office or program." Again, you'd answer "Yes." This presents you with a list of sites, one of which is the VA Lenders Handbook. Even if you don't answer in this manner, a lot of checks are built into the system to get you to the correct site.

The intent of the HyperFAQ is to provide an alternate route for people for whom the primary navigation system has failed. The core audience is made up of people who click the "Contact Us" link or the "FAQ" link for a site — people who have tried to get what they need using the default navigation tools and have failed. If you're going to design alternative navigation, it's to your advantage to build an interface that puts a minimal cognitive burden on the user. In a question-and-answer system, the simplest burden you can impose is a single yes-or-no question.

I have received inquiries from other agencies and commercial Web designers about how I built the site, and many have asked me if I used commercial off-the-shelf software. The tools and methods are laughably simple; however, I used a freeware ASCII editor. A database would have just slowed down the product and added no quality.

I approached building the site by printing a stack of all the VA Web pages that made the top-200 list for any month for the past six months. Then I asked myself, "What simple yes-or-no question would divide this stack in half?" I then kept generating new yes-or-no questions and new stacks until the stacks were small enough to list on a single Web page. I then built Web pages that would lead users through the hierarchy of questions until the site presented them with links to the Web pages they chose by answering the questions.

The HyperFAQ has become one of the fastest-growing sites on www.va.gov, but I don't foresee any increase in my Webmaster workload as the popularity of the site increases. Because the HyperFAQ is based on the top 200 Web sites, my editorial work doesn't increase despite the increase in popularity, a fact that doesn't hold true for most Web content.

I recently demonstrated the HyperFAQ to officials from the General Services Administration with the hope of applying the same design to an index of the top U.S. government Web sites.

I've done the math, and I think I can index 50 percent of all hits to U.S. government Web content with an eight-question HyperFAQ.

White is a Webmaster at the Department of Veterans Affairs and founder of the VA Customer-Focused IT Workshop.

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