Web design comments that click

The Agriculture Department is in the process of redesigning its Web site.A Web team has been formed, customers and stakeholders have been contacted,studies have been completed, and a report has been written regarding recommendations for short-term and long-term changes.

One of the suggestions that the team followed through on was placing a link at the top of the home page announcing the redesign effort and soliciting comments about the new look: "We Need Your Input! Comment here." The messages received were automatically distributed to all team members.

By early August, 268 messages have been received. They are wide-ranging.Lessons have been learned. One is not to use the word "Comment" at the top of a page.

Many people apparently did not read an explanatory sentence that preceded the "Comment" link. And although a linked e-mail address is available on the home page for customers who need help or have questions, several people either didn't see that link, ignored it, or thought the "Comment" link at the top of the page was more important. Messages relating to the new presidential administration and feedback about other agencies were common: "This is for the Secretary..." and, "How do I send a message to the Weather Service,I have a pet peeve."

These messages were answered, and even though they were not aimed at the redesign effort, they still made a point: Some people just scan the page and don't really read it. Short, simple, direct presentation likely will get everyone's attention.

Other comments were more directly helpful. If you are contemplating a redesign effort, you may want to consider the advice we received — comments such as: "Don't use a lot of pictures and graphics if it slows the loading time.The worst type of Web page is one that takes forever and a day to load."Even with expanded bandwidth available in certain areas, various viruses have given prominence to the Wait in the "World Wide Wait."

This comment — "Clean layout, no tons of bells and whistles" — goes beyond load time. The customer is asking for a presentation that is easy to use.

Here's one from a librarian in California: "I maintain a government information Web site for a [university] library and check the [links] I have twice a year. It is interesting to see the changes made by the new president and the people who represent him. There are a lot of changes to well-established government sites that render them difficult to use, such as new graphics that take longer to access."

The Bush administration is the first to enter office with the Web established as a medium for information and services. Actions taken by agency Webmasters to reflect the leadership change likely will set precedents for administrations that follow.

Many users' comments related to commercial information. They requested that certain reports or training opportunities be highlighted and more easily found. This feedback shows the necessity for an organized presentation that helps customers locate information.

Databases can be a major help in this area. But there are two fields of thought involved. For researchers, databases provide access to the subject and related information — and researchers usually can't get too much information.For many other people, however, database returns are confusing. The page can be crowded and a hindrance to locating an answer.

A good search engine is still needed. And some users find search engines too difficult. A simple box titled "Search" and a "Go" button is more their speed.

Other comments called for improved ability to locate job opportunities,internships, handbooks and regulations. And, of course, we received the solicitation: "My best friend and her partner design Web sites. They are absolutely the best Web designers ever. Check them out.... You won't be disappointed."

The public's feedback. It's great.

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

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