- By Brian Robinson
- Oct 14, 2002
Web usability — the notion that Web pages should be designed to make information as easy to find as possible — might be described as an unfunded mandate the government has imposed on its own agencies.
Both Congress and the Bush administration have made more accessible Web sites a core mandate of e-government. The law known as Section 508 requires agencies to make information technology, including Web sites, accessible to people with disabilities. It forced many Webmasters to think seriously about Web design and usability for the first time.
But talking about usability and making sure it happens are two different things. Usability means more than coming up with a good site design. It requires follow-through, and that's where many agencies — short-staffed and with little time or money for training — often come up short.
"Only a handful of agencies have so far dealt seriously with the resources, training, staff commitment and other things it takes to make usable Web sites," said Charles McClure, who has been an outspoken critic of the government's Web presence.
McClure, director of Florida State University's Information Use Management and Policy Institute, believes the talk about Web usability is far ahead of the reality.
Officials have talked a lot about e-government, he said, but agencies have been so focused on concerns such as online security that only a handful have spent the energy necessary to make sure their Web sites are accessible and useful. And so far, they haven't had a lot of help.
"The Office of Management and Budget tells the agencies to go out and make good Web sites, but it doesn't give them any resources to do that with," McClure said. OMB "puts out a lot of rhetoric, but not a lot of guidance."
Part of the problem is that usability is not clearly defined. You don't build applications with specific functions, according to Eric Schaffer, chief executive officer and founder of Human Factors International Inc., but instead create "systems that must work in the context of a given range of users doing a given set of tasks in a given environment."
To ensure success, organizations must involve a mix of participants, according to Schaffer:
* An executive who will champion the usability strategy and advocate usability engineering.
* A usability manager to implement the strategy and oversee activities.
* A usability coordinator to handle meetings.
* A primary usability expert to give technical direction and validate the work of others on the team.
* Usability staff members to work on designated projects.
* Graphic artists to create images for the Web site in accordance with specifications that are developed during the usability testing process.
This is a tall order for government agencies, most of which are struggling with shrinking budgets.
However, some come close to following that model. The Government Printing Office (GPO), for example, has a number of staff members dedicated to usability issues and a statistician who analyzes usage trends, said T.C. Evans, director of GPO's Office of Electronic Information Dissemination Services. GPO had an online presence even before the Web became the main way of getting information to the public, so it's had time to build a knowledgeable Web team.
Even so, Evans said, the number of people on the team has grown only slightly over time. Instead, the skill set of the team members has expanded to include an understanding of usability through training and on-the-job exposure.
"I'm a firm believer in doing and in learning from doing," he said.
The General Services Administration also encourages widespread awareness of the importance of usability, though perhaps more from necessity than choice. Its Web site must cater to the variety of services and offices that make up GSA, which have very different constituencies.
Having individuals on the Web team who can encapsulate all of the knowledge needed to serve those different players is probably not possible, said Tom Skribunt, acting director of marketing and strategic planning at GSA.
"I'm not sure there is such a thing as a usability expert" for GSA, he said. "We prefer that the people who are involved in such things as the management of Web content be sensitized to the usability concerns of their customers, which can be very different."
That requires eternal vigilance and a constant flow of communication about usability issues among content providers, Skribunt said.
Agencies can either train their Web staffs in usability skills or hire outside experts for activities such as conducting usability tests, said Gina Pearson, Web manager for the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service. But agencies probably cannot do without someone whose sole focus is usability.
"Ideally, you want one person at least who is the usability advocate for the Web site," she said. "Someone who goes to the training sessions, who keeps tabs on what industry is doing about usability, who can help set up the testing and also help train other people on the Web team on aspects of usability."
That kind of advocacy helps brings another perspective to the table when Web issues are being considered — beyond the specific concerns of graphic designers, content managers or other specialists. Those people could also be up-to-date on usability issues, Pearson said, but an advocate would make sure such concerns were always part of the discussion.
It's also important that Web usability has a champion as high up the agency's executive ladder as possible, according to Sanjay Koyani, a senior staffer in the National Cancer Institute's Communication Technologies Branch. Cultural issues could force usability to the sidelines without that high-level support, he said.
"A lot of people we work with believe that usability is something that can be thrown in at the end of the Web design process," he said. Instead, usability "needs someone who can apply the philosophy of designing from a user perspective and who can make it central" to the process.
The institute has a Web site (www. cancer.gov) that has won several usability awards in the past year. It runs the resource site www.usability.gov and is one of the principal advocates of Web usability in the federal government.
However, many government officials have not embraced Web usability, at least not as a formal concept that must be applied to what they do on a daily basis.
The Army's Web site, for example, is one of the busiest and biggest in the federal government. By the Army's reckoning, it is about 64 times larger in file size than the next largest military site.
And Lt. Col. Mark Wiggins, Web manager for the Army's home page (www.army.mil), handles the site with the help of just two other people.
"Usability is a term we refrain from using," he said. "It doesn't really mean much, because it depends on who you speak to and it can mean very different things to different people."
For Wiggins, the goals are establishing an identifiable "brand" for the Army site with appropriate messaging features and content, "and then all the other stuff — the look and feel, navigation, etc. — has to support that," he said.
His team conducted a series of focus group meetings early in 2001 before redesigning the site's home page, and the groups are reconvened regularly to see what participants think of the site "at least on an informal basis," he said. The Army also surveys Web site users.
Apart from that, he said, usability issues are covered by getting as much feedback as possible from users and "staying on top of things day by day."
That's not to say that he wouldn't like to have more resources, of course. He recently requested an increase in his Web staff to a total of eight people, including an assistant Web manager, content coordinators, software programmers, and graphics and multimedia specialists — but not a usability expert.
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.