Good site searches vital, experts say

Agencies work to ensure their Web sites are user friendly and working properly

Transparency isn’t only about deciding which pieces information should be available to the public, experts say. It is equally important to make it easy to find information.

That means government Web sites should be well-designed and include a capable search tool, said Art Chantker, president of the Potomac Forum, which recently held a conference about improving transparency through Web design and information architecture.

Search was a major problem with the State Department’s Web site when the agency brought in NavigationArts to help refresh the site.

“The biggest complaint was their search didn’t work,” said Dustin Collis, development director at NavigationArts. “We thought that meant it just didn’t work very well, but no, they meant it didn’t work at all. You’d do a search and get an error.”  The site ran on software that had not been updated for more than two years, Collis said.

All the content on that site was restructured so it is now organized by tasks, not by which department owns or created the content. The task structure makes it easier for visitors to find what they need, Collis said.

Ensuring that searches work well is important because 90 percent of organizations say it is the No. 1 way people navigate Web sites, said John Sutton, director of interaction design at NavigationArts. Also, about 80 percent of visitors will abandon a site if search is poor, he said.

The Smithsonian Institution plans to publish a Web and new media strategy in July that will lay out consistent priorities and guidelines for its museums and research institutions, said Michael Edson, the Smithsonian’s director of Web and new media strategy.

For the most part, each museum and research institution within the Smithsonian built out independent Web presences. As a result, accessing all the information and resources the Smithsonian has to offer is more difficult than it should be, Edson said.

The new strategy will strike a balance between the autonomy museums want and the control the Smithsonian needs to effectively share information, Edson said.

“It would be a huge mistake to completely consolidate Web and new media productions,” Edson said. “The best Web and new media work happens when we have staff close to collections and the public create it. That happens at the museums and research centers of the Smithsonian.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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