Dot-gov by design
- By William Matthews
- Dec 09, 2001
As soon as it appeared on the Internet last year, the Internal Revenue Service Web page was a surprising hit. "Hyper-hip," site reviewer Web 100 said. "Dare we say hip, witty," wrote PC Magazine.
"Fifties kitsch" graphics caught the eye and gentle self- deprecating humor leavened the image of the usually intimidating IRS. But when Greg Carson joined the tax-collection agency late last year as director of Internet services, he decided early on that the existing Web site wouldn't do.
"Everything you ever wanted to know about taxes is in the Web site — you just can't find it," said Carson, who came to the IRS as a private-sector Web pro whose work included helping to launch the Priceline.com site.
Next month, the IRS Web site will have a new look designed to get taxpayers the information they seek in no more than two or three clicks, Carson said. To demonstrate the current site's problems, Carson had top IRS executives search for tax information. Typically, it took them 20 or even 30 clicks to find it, he said. "It was very difficult."
It has been six years since federal agencies rushed to establish a presence on the Web. Only gradually has it become clear that just being there isn't enough. Although a growing number of senior agency officials have begun to realize that Web sites can be valuable communications channels, getting typical Web sites to effectively provide information and transactions remains an elusive art.
"Recent statistics show that over 60 percent of Web users can't find the information they're looking for, even though they're viewing a site where the information exists," said Sanjay Koyani, a Web usability engineer and analyst for the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
In practical terms, he said, "When you watch a physician spend 20 minutes searching for cancer treatment information and give up in frustration without finding it, we're not doing our jobs."
Turning Art into Science
After two years of research, Web usability specialists at NCI believe they have developed a prescription for designing Web sites that work. They start by finding out what Web users want and then studying with scientific precision which Web designs make information easiest for users to get (see box, Page 18).
One result is CancerNet (cancernet.nci.nih.gov), an award-winning site that has been highly praised for making it easy for patients and doctors to find comprehensive information on cancer.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has caught on to the idea, too. Using a Cognitive Research Laboratory set up in pre-Web days to design better paper surveys and forms, the BLS team studied how the people who use its Web site navigate from the home page to the information they seek.
By analyzing user behavior, the BLS team weeded out many of the wrong turns and dead ends in its Web site and produced a clean and efficient new design. The key was user testing, said Richard Devens, chief of the BLS publishing division.
But some good ideas travel surprisingly slowly on the Internet.
"It's really rare to see government Web sites that are done well," said Jakob Nielsen, a leading authority on Web page design and usability. "You can find a home page done well, or a page for downloading forms that is done well, but I have not found an entire agency site that is done well."
In general, the quality of government Web sites lags behind that of corporate Web sites, Nielsen said. And the "state-of-the-art of corporate Web sites is still pretty poor," he added.
But the potential usefulness of better government Web sites has never been more apparent.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Arlington, Va., and southwest Pennsylvania rocketed the FBI Web site to prominence. Site visits leapt from about 2 million a month to 10 million, said FBI Web specialist Waldo Persteins. FBI figures include multiple visits by single individuals. Jupiter Media Metrix Inc., a company that monitors Web site traffic, reported that the number of "unique visitors" to the FBI site increased from about 550,000 in August to 2.4 million in October.
Site traffic swelled as Web users searched for official information about the attacks. The real surge came after FBI officials suddenly realized that the Web could be valuable in helping them track down terrorists. The agency asked the public to report tips about terrorists on a special Web site, and tens of thousands of people responded.
Next, the agency displayed electronic posters of the 22 most wanted terrorists. Then, in October, when anthrax showed up in the mail, the FBI site was among the first to publish instructions on what to look for and how to handle suspicious mail.
The FBI site was redesigned last April to be "more dynamic," but after this fall's eruption of activity, the site is expected to undergo further redesign in January, said Susan McKee, a member of an 11-person team that operates the FBI Web site.
One goal sparked by the terrorist and anthrax attacks is to make the site "more proactive," McKee said. The agency plans to emphasize "public safety issues," such as posting alerts to warn the public and officials of threats including terrorism, computer viruses and crime sprees.
The Web team also wants to produce and post more detailed reporting on FBI activities, she said.
Since coming online in 1995, the FBI Web site has taken on an array of functions. It serves as a newspaper, a magazine, an encyclopedia, a television and a radio, said FBI spokesman Rex Tomb. "We try to be as topical, interesting and informative as we can be," he said.
The site serves up items as varied as online chats with FBI officials, news updates on investigations, the director's speeches, crime statistics and job advertisements.
There is DNA testing information for "the forensic science community" and wanted posters that local police departments frequently download. The Web team notes that the FBI site even offers a certain "entertainment" value. Parts of the site appeal to the same viewers who watch TV cop shows, Persteins said.
Although substantially rich in content, the FBI site is plagued by some basic design flaws, said Vincent Flanders, a noted Web designer, author and creator of www.webpagesthatsuck.com.
For example, links to items that interest the public — posters of the 10 most wanted fugitives, terrorists, crime alerts — are located near the bottom of the home page. They should be at the top, he said.
Meanwhile, things the public generally doesn't care about — a long-winded explanation of the FBI's core values, a legalistic summary of the responsibilities of its headquarters and divisions, and an explanation of the FBI's field office system — are highlighted at the top. They should be at the bottom if they are on the page at all, Flanders said. "Only the FBI cares about that stuff," he said.
One of the hottest new items — a link to the terrorist tip- reporting site — is buried at the bottom of the home page instead of prominently displayed at the top. In addition, small type makes the home page hyperlinks hard to read, and overly long introductions to press releases consume too much space and should be condensed, Flanders said.
But the FBI site's most serious problem may be its lack of coordinated design, Nielsen said. The home page has one look, but jump inside to the crime alerts page and there is a "jarringly different" appearance. The 10 most wanted fugitives page has yet another design.
Tying together a Web site by giving all of its pages a similar look and feel is one of the elementary rules of good Web design, according to Nielsen. "Consistency gives a comforting feeling," he said, and lack of consistency is disorienting to viewers.
Design vs. Usability
A sense of comfort is particularly important for Web sites aimed at mass audiences, but for some sites, the critical attribute is speed.
The BLS Web site doesn't attract many casual browsers. As its name suggests, the bureau maintains a warehouse full of facts and analyses on economic and workforce information — from price indexes to employment numbers, and wage reports to labor unit costs. Since 1994, the information has also been available on the Internet.
For the most part, visitors to the BLS Web site seek specific information for business or research purposes. They want to get in, get information and get out as quickly as possible, and the BLS site was redesigned this year specifically to accommodate them, said Devens, the publishing division chief.
The home page is stripped down to essentials, basically serving as a table of contents. There are no pictures, no press releases and no messages from the bureau chief. Every word is part of a hyperlink to inside pages that contain data or other links to data. The only graphic on the page is a map that enables visitors to click on a region or select a state and be led to relevant statistical information.
The Spartan design makes it possible to learn in just three clicks, for example, that dental hygienists earn an average of $24.99 an hour nationwide. As a practical matter, a site visitor seeking that information would have to know to look in the "Wages by Area and Occupation" section of the site, but that suits many of the BLS site's users.
While designing the site, the Cognitive Research Laboratory worked closely with the publishing division, which had experience providing the kind of data that BLS' "distinctive customer set" wants, Devens said.
During the design phase, the lab rounded up students, researchers, journalists and others who use labor and economic statistics and had them test prototypes while watchful Web designers looked for ways to improve usability.
The bureau now makes its lab available to other agencies for Web site design and testing. So far, six agencies have used it, Devens said.
If there is a polar opposite to the BLS site, it may be www. whitehouse.gov. Austerity is absent here. The site revels in photos, video and audio presentations — mostly featuring President Bush. There are virtual tours of the executive mansion, brightly colored pages for kids and a version in Spanish.
The White House site wins praise for its pleasing appearance and generally good design from Nielsen, but Flanders dismisses it as "a political site."
The site is designed to emphasize "the president's message of the day," said White House spokesman Jimmy Orr. But it's not just a "political site," he insisted.
Although the White House Office of Media Affairs meets daily to decide how the site can best reflect "what the president is trying to communicate to the people," White House Web managers are careful to ensure that the site also reflects "the dignity and tradition of the White House," Orr said.
But sometimes the whiff of politics is unavoidable. On Nov. 29, for example, the site featured the transcript of a speech by the president —illustrated with a photo of Bush flanked by four American flags — scolding the Democrat-controlled Senate for failing to pass his economic stimulus package and his energy bill.
Designed by Jane Cook, the Webmaster for Texas when Bush was governor, the White House site "went through many different stages," Orr said. As prototypes were developed, input on content and usability was sought from political advisers, school teachers, children, disabled Web users and many others.
That sort of research is the key to producing a good Web site, Nielsen maintained.
"Get five users and observe them as they use the Web site," he advised. Have them "think aloud" as they progress through the site. That will provide good insight into the strengths and weaknesses of each page's elements, Nielsen said. What users think as they are working through a site is much more important than their overall opinion when they have finished, he said.
That is essentially the process NCI has refined to a science. In 1999, when Web designers at the institute set out to redesign CancerNet, they started with a large conference of users, designers, managers and Web technicians. But each group had a different opinion on how the new site should look and work, recalled Janice Nall, chief of NCI's Communication Technologies Branch. That left the design team wondering whose opinion was right.
"We needed some methodology to show that what we came up with was better than what we started out with," Nall said. "We wanted to get opinion out of the process" and base designs on techniques that had proven effective. Since Web sites are designed for users, the NCI team decided its designs should be based on what was shown to work best for users.
The first step was to collect basic information about who the site's users were — something no one had done before.
The team began by posting an online questionnaire and was surprised to learn that at any given time, a third to a half of the site's users were first-time visitors. That meant many were unfamiliar with the site and that clarity and ease of navigation were of paramount importance.
Questionnaires and personal interviews also helped the designers better understand the information that visitors needed and expected to find on the site.
Next came testing with actual users. NCI Web designers were shocked to discover that some of the users brought in to test the institute's cancer information site had trouble getting past the front page, Nall said. It was not clear to all users that the icons on the home page were clickable, she said. And once inside, it was often hard for users to find the information they sought.
To avoid such problems with the new site, the Web design team brought more users in — doctors, medical librarians, patients and others — to test and retest prototypes as they were developed and modified.
It is instructive when a grandmotherly user exclaims, "Why in the world did they do that?" while trying to navigate a site, Nall said.
Such "research-based Web design" can be time-consuming and costly, Nall said. "You can short-cut it, but in the long run it saves time and money to do it right."
During the past year, the CancerNet site has won four awards for its content and design. Meanwhile, the lessons learned during the CancerNet redesign have been turned into a free tutorial at www.usability.gov. The site offers step-by-step instructions for building a research-based Web page.
Gradually, Web designs are getting better, Nall said. "Five years ago, nobody really knew what they were doing." Designers experimented with using animation and Macromedia Inc.'s Flash because it was possible, unaware that "people universally hate it," she said.
"Everyone's been struggling for a better way" to design sites, Nall said. But only recently have they thought to ask Web users.