GSA to test Web usability

When America Online Inc. wanted to know how ordinary people liked its search engine, it turned to Richard Horst's company, which sent workers to shopping malls to gather opinions.

And when NASA wanted to make it easier for earth-bound operators to manipulate the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, it also turned to Horst's company, UserWorks Inc.

Now the General Services Administration has hired the firm to find out how to improve FirstGov, the federal Web portal.

GSA is paying UserWorks $85,000 to spend the next six months conducting focus groups and usability tests on the Web site. Although a redesigned site debuted barely a month ago, plans for further change are under way.

The recent overhaul "was a step in the right direction," said Horst, president of UserWorks, but more change is needed. "The expectations of the public keep growing. There really is a phenomenon where users are becoming more demanding. Graphics [are] a part of that."

The old FirstGov, bland and lackluster, was replaced Feb. 27 by a site that is better organized and less dreary. But the new site still falls short of GSA's vision last December of a FirstGov with "a graphical image that is on par with [for example] the California state portal site." Horst said UserWorks is likely to recommend adding more graphics, bolder colors and a fresher design to FirstGov.

GSA "is very much interested in getting information on the needs and wants" of FirstGov users for future improvements to the portal, he said.

In the latest facelift, GSA rearranged FirstGov into three customer channels to online government — one for citizens, one for businesses and one for government entities. UserWorks will conduct focus groups and usability tests to judge FirstGov users' reactions to the redesign. GSA will use the feedback for additional modifications to the portal, a GSA spokeswoman said.

"They have big plans for new functionality, new content and a content management system," Horst said.

"Functionality" includes offering more electronic services and transactions. And the content management system is intended to make it easier to put new information on government Web sites so that agencies don't have to rely on a limited number of Webmasters to post new material.

UserWorks plans to begin by assembling small groups of Web users and assigning them tasks to perform through FirstGov. The company will monitor users as they work through the Web site and then discuss the pluses and minuses of the site's design.

"The challenge is to make it relatively easy for people with a wide range of sophistication" to find information and perform transactions through FirstGov, Horst said. The key "is to involve real people and get their perspectives" on how well the site works, he said. It is also important to observe their performance as they work with the Web site, he said.

Testing Web sites "should be a continuous process," said Jakob Nielsen, a Web usability expert. "If a week goes by that you haven't actually talked to a user, then something is wrong."

Focus groups, on the other hand, represent the "classic way of doing things wrong," Nielsen said. "You really don't want people in a room talking about what they wish for."

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