It's not about the boss

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"Dot-gov by design"

Although it may work for the White House Web site to focus almost exclusively on the boss, that's an approach other government sites should avoid, Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen advises.

"That's a classic mistake on government Web sites," he said. "No normal person" goes to a government Web site to learn about the agency's secretary. They want information about student loans and Social Security benefits, or they need tax forms or job-hunting help, but rarely do they care about who heads the agency.

The practice of featuring agency secretaries in the most prominent location on the agency home page is fading, but according to Nielsen, it isn't happening fast enough.

He singles out the Small Business Administration as an example. In the center of the SBA home page is the name "Hector V. Barreto." Click on the name and up pops a picture of the smiling SBA administrator.

Above Barreto's name on the home page is a large button labeled SBA. It leads to the agency's mission statement.

Neither item is helpful to most visitors to the SBA site, Nielsen said. Visitors almost certainly want information about starting or financing small businesses. Or they need help complying with government regulations that affect small businesses. By focusing on Barreto and the agency's mission statement, the SBA home page "is not satisfying the users' needs," he said.

Nielsen finds other problems as well. The page has multiple buttons with vague labels that seem to duplicate one another, such as "Headline News" and "What's New," or "Answer Desk" and "Frequently Asked Questions."

Users should not have to guess which button leads to the information they want — it should be clear, Nielsen said.

Such design elements can hardly be said to have hurt the SBA Web site; it averages more than a million visitors a week, said SBA spokesman Mike Stamler.

Since it came online five years ago, the site has won awards from Home Office Computing magazine, Forbes magazine, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo, he said.

"It's a rather petty complaint that one thing is located in four or five square inches of the center of the page rather than another," Stamler said.

Overall, "the site is chock full and loaded with information useful for small businesses, from how to get a loan to how to sell a business," he said.

Banning agency secretaries and mission statements from prominent display does not mean they should be barred from home pages altogether, Nielsen said. A link to a photo and information about the secretary and another to the agency mission statement belong near the bottom of the home page.

There, they lend a sense of authenticity to the site, he said.


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