Sites need testing, 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 this month.

Rather than relying on usability tests, Web developers often base the design on what looks good or how they think information should be organized, said officials from the National Cancer Institute's Communication Technologies Branch (CTB) in the Office of Communications. But only half of all 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.

"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 cancer institute officials recently participated in a discussion at the Interagency Resource Management Conference in Cambridge, Md.

CTB officials were asked to redesign the 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 who were seeking information about how to volunteer found information 100 percent of the time.

However, those seeking information about nuclear security, air marshals and/or fire safety were successful 0 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.

The Department of Health and Human Services' Web site went through a similar review.

Users "couldn't even get off the home page," said Mary Theofanos, manager of the 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."

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