Digital gov

Are federal web sites too subtle?

Shutterstock image: government access keyboard.

The public sometimes must suss out if they're looking at a federal agency website or a commercial site by looking at domain names or other clues like agency logos, according to 18F research on how to better design federal web pages.

The public also looks for reassurances they're on the right federal web site in the form of "trust-building language such as 'this is an official government website,'" according to a March 16 blog post by web designers and developers at the General Services Administration's 18F.

The findings are part of the feedback 18F has received since last September when it launched its Draft U.S. Web Design Standards. Since then, 18F user experience designer Carolyn Dew and 18F outreach team member Melody Kramer wrote in a blog post, hundreds of people have provided feedback on the project through GitHub issues and email.

The agency has received "dozens of feature requests" and over 400 contributions from the open source community, they said.

The effort has also tapped research by 18F's Federal Front Door project, a six-week discovery effort begun last December to get a better understanding of the public's feelings about federal websites and their interaction with them.

The group has incorporated suggestions into its design guidance, but all the ideas coming in also got 18F staff thinking about topics like accessibility, content strategy and user-centered design for users of government websites.

The research also found that the public can get overwhelmed by federal government websites that offer too many choices or don't explain the consequences of a given choice.

Additionally, the researchers said people want to better process transparency on federal sites, such as being notified that their information has been received and reviewed, or provided with explanations of why processes can take as long as they do.

Dew and Kramer said not all of the concerns can be addressed using common user interface elements in the draft design standards, but they can offer a starting place.  Consistent design elements can make it obvious visually that users are on a federal website, or that they're making an important choice that will change their interaction.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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