Sites need better design, experts say

National Cancer Institute's Usability Web site

Web developers should put their sites through usability tests because many people have a hard time finding the information they want online, experts said last week.

Web developers often base the design on what looks good or how they think information should be organized, rather than relying on usability tests, said officials from the National Cancer Institute's Communication Technologies Branch (CTB) in the Office of Communications. But only half of sites have been compiled using basic usability concepts, and Web site users are able to find the information they want only 40 percent of the time, experts said last week.

"Everyone has an idea where [information] should be," said Sanjay Koyani, a usability engineer and analyst for CTB. "Let's start looking at the data to drive our decisions."

Koyani and other National Cancer Institute officials participated in a discussion last week at the Interagency Resource Management Conference in Cambridge, Md.

Officials in CTB were asked to redesign the National Cancer Institute's Web site about three years ago. The effort required a test that allows designers to assess how easily users can understand and navigate the site.

The Homeland Security Department tested the initial Web site and found it to have an overall success rate of 38 percent, CTB officials said. Users that were seeking information about how to volunteer found information 100 percent of the time. However, those seeking information on nuclear security, air marshals and fire safety were successful zero percent of the time.

"This shows management where they need to do some work," said Janice Nall, CTB chief. Once the site is fixed, officials can then compare the designs, she said.

Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services Web site went through an overhaul.

"They couldn't even get off the home page," said Mary Theofanus, director of the National Cancer Institute's Communications Technologies Research Center. "People are topic- driven, and the site was set up by agency. Here you had a site with loads of information on it and nobody could get to it."

CTB officials said people accomplished tasks on the site only about one-third of the time, so developers decided to organize the site by topics, rather than by organizations within the department.

Agencies, Koyani said, should follow four steps in designing a site:

* Plan the core functions of the site.

* Gather user data.

* Design an initial prototype.

* Run the prototype through usability tests.

* Refine and retest the site.

Koyani said developers should base Web site and system plans on data rather than opinion, finding out what users want before investing in the technology. He suggested consulting usability-engineering methodology for designing sites and usability testing.

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