Online feng shui


Federal agencies are discovering that a good Web site should be constructed to satisfy users, not designers.

The latest update of FirstGov, the federal government's main portal, reflects that philosophy, making usability the organizing principle, according to officials in the General Services Administration, which manages the site.

GSA, for example, has determined that at least 70 percent of FirstGov visitors are citizens, and most of those visitors are looking for help with services such as applying for social security or changing an address.

In the old design, links for such services were found under a "citizen" column, while additional services were grouped under columns for federal employees, government agencies or businesses. But after seeing the traffic patterns, GSA now has made the citizen tab the default home page for the portal, serving the greatest need first.

This approach also reflects the Bush administration's "three clicks to service" strategy, which stipulates that users should only have to follow three links to find the information or service they seek.

"Think of it as bringing [the citizen] one click closer," said M.J. Jameson, associate administrator for GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications (OCSC).

On May 8, FirstGov won the Innovations in American Government award, which is funded by the Ford Foundation and administered by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in partnership with the Council for Excellence in Government.

Organizations often go through a difficult process to get all their stakeholders to agree on what a refreshed Web site should look like, but user interests should trump those of the agency, said Gina Pearson, Web manager for the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.

"That's why obtaining input from actual site users is so important," she said. "When the inevitable internal debates arise, development teams can refocus the conversation by asking, 'What information do we have from users on this issue?' "

Besides studying Web traffic patterns, the FirstGov team gets feedback from usability tests, in which team members watch how users navigate the site, as well as from user surveys and e-mail messages. The team received about 1,000 e-mails per week concerning the old site, and they have received about 200 per day since the new site went up May 6, Jameson said.

FirstGov has a distinct advantage when it comes to gauging user needs, particularly those of the general public. With the creation of the OCSC in the fiscal 2003 budget, the FirstGov team is now tied in with the Federal Citizen Information Center in Pueblo, Colo., which is where the majority of citizen inquiries for government information come.

"That's incredibly valuable information for what we put on the front page of FirstGov," said Beverly Godwin, director of operations for FirstGov.

The Government Printing Office also took advantage of user feedback in redesigning GPOAccess, a portal for accessing reams of documents published by all three branches of government.

GPO garnered a lot of information in person, both from usability testing and from comments made to staff who travel around the country teaching people how to use the site, said Richard Davis, the agency's director of electronic information dissemination services.

The portal currently has an average of 32 million documents downloaded each month, and that number is growing.

User input is valuable because "we wanted to make a site that allowed users, independent of their skill level, to access federal government information," so they had to test and retest the balance between simplicity and robustness, he said.

In the past, documents were listed by agency, which was not an obstacle for government employees, who account for about 30 percent of GPOAccess visitors.

But an increasing number of visitors from the general public and the education community now visit the site, and they often do not know or care whether a document is from the executive, judicial or legislative branch, Davis said. The new design provides various ways to find documents, including an A-to-Z resource list and a topic list.

Davis has found that his government counterparts often only get feedback through e-mail, which is a mistake. Davis and his staff advise agencies to explore other venues, including Web analysis tools, to identify users' needs.

It takes more time, "but it's well worth it in the end," said Karen Sieger, product services manager for GPO's Web team.

When you have one form of feedback "that is systematical and methodical, you are way ahead of the game, but the more that you can do, then the better off you are," Pearson agreed. n


Web design 101

Here are the top five tips from the FirstGov development team for designing a customer-focused Web site:

1. Define your audience(s).

2. Focus on your audience, rather than your organization or program name.

3. Write in plain language, using terminology familiar to your audience.

4. Put your most commonly requested services and forms online.

5. Include ways for your audience to provide feedback and use that input to continuously improve.


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