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The Government Domain: The Cream of the Federal Website Crop

By Peggy Garvin, Published on November 20, 2005

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting is author of The United States Government Internet Manual (Bernan Press) and contributing author for The Congressional Deskbook, 2005-2007 (TheCapitol.Net).


Each summer and fall, while others are off touring the wine country or playing horseshoes at the Labor Day picnic, I visit a couple thousand U.S. government web sites. I do this to update an annual reference book, The United States Government Internet Manual (Lanham, MD: Bernan Press).

Each year, I find that more and more federal government web sites get it right. Many are best-practice exemplars, innovation leaders, and models even for the dotcom world. Sure, there are some stragglers. Some government web sites - with their visitor counters, awkward frames, and broken internal links - seem to be stuck in the 20th century. Others present a clean face while frustrating information seekers; I am thinking Homeland Security here. But this column will focus on the cream of the crop, those sites that continually evolve for the better.

The Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University takes an annual web tour similar to mine each year (albeit covering only 61 federal sites), and they publish a ranking of what they deem to be the best federal and state government web sites. This year, the top ten feds were:

  1. The White House

  2. State Department

  3. Treasury Department

  4. Agriculture Department

  5. Environmental Protection Agency

  6. Social Security Administration

  7. Department of Housing and Urban Development

  8. Federal Communications Commission

  9. FirstGov

  10. Health and Human Services Department

The federal circuit courts of appeals sites were among the lowest ranked.

The Taubman Center study (in PDF) evaluates government web sites on their quality and content. Technical factors include the number of broken links, page redirects, and use of the HTML title field. The Center looks for content like electronic services, foreign language translations, and online publications and databases. They also evaluate sites for readability for the average American and accessibility for the disabled.

Top ten lists like the Taubman Center’s are always fun to read, and the Center’s study provides useful insights for anyone trying to improve large and complex web sites. But I got even more insight into the federal success stories by attending a recent program held by the Usability Professionals Association called “World Usability Day: eGov Success Stories from the Nation's Capital."  What is usability? You’ll find a helpful explanation on the association’s web site. My own rough definition is that web usability is about finding information and completing online transactions successfully and with a minimum of pain. Measurable convenience for the information user, rather than the information producer, is the primary goal. The international Usability Professionals Association (UPA) held educational events around the world on November 3, World Usability Day. For its event, the Washington, DC chapter brought together of panel of web and usability experts from the Census Bureau, FirstGov, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Social Security Administration, and the Treasury Department. Notice some overlap with the Taubman Center’s top ten?

One thing I learned is that all of these organizations employ usability specialists. They undertake usability studies and, what’s more, implement solutions based on those studies. If you’ve ever tried to inculcate a new practice such as usability into the culture of a large organization, you know it is seldom a smooth ride. Several of the program’s panelists have managed to bring their agencies from ground zero, to using structured techniques for evaluating the usability of existing products, to the holy grail of user-centered design from the get-go. Sean Wheeler from Social Security held out an even higher goal;  that of extending user-centered methods to business and strategic planning to identify which products are needed in the first place.

The obligations of a national government bring some unique usability challenges. UPA and their members got their moment in the national sunshine back in 2000 when the contested Florida presidential election results taught everyone the value of a usable ballot and voting process. Adam Ambrogi, speaking for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, summed up the challenges in plain English when he remarked that any time you have lots of people doing something they do not usually do, there are going to be problems. Betty Murphy of Census is faced with this sort of challenge in designing web-based forms for Census 2010. The web forms are an option; most citizens will probably still opt for paper. All the same, her usability lab has to design a form that can be used by anyone in the United States. Those people will be using the form only once and, like voters, will not want to invest time in learning to use the application. Betty Murphy also hit on a theme echoed by other panelists: a technically accessible interface - one that complies with the government’s legal standard known as section 508 - is not necessarily usable by people with disabilities. As Sean Wheeler put it, accessible design goes above and beyond not getting sued.

Presenters Sheila Campbell and Cari Wolfson from the FirstGov project got into the nitty gritty of usability testing and metrics. For those who are not usability professionals, their presentation was educational for its coverage of the quantitative practices employed by those in the field. They also showed how tiny changes can make major reductions to the number of user errors and major improvements to user satisfaction. Changes they made after testing included increasing the length of the search entry box and changing the object used to enter a search from a small button called "Go" to a larger button called "Search." Satisfaction with search results improved when they stopped numbering results, moved all elements of the results list to flush left, and changed the color of the URL in the search results from grey to green. (Green is the norm; check it out on Yahoo! and Google.)

Nicole Burton of Treasury presented her story of being the first usability professional to enter the world of Treasury’s government-to-government accounting applications. She envies agencies with full-blown usability labs, and she described how she makes progress by using classic “cheap and cheerful” usability techniques such as low-fidelity prototypes. For their own professional survival, Burton encouraged her fellow government usability practitioners to find ways to protect their creativity while working in a large, bureaucratic organization.

Judging from what I have seen on this year’s magical mystery tour of federal websites, there are many people behind the scenes with their creativity and user-centered approach well intact. I’ll close with one site that may restore your faith in government websites.

Usability.gov from the Department of Health and Human Services is a "resource for designing usable, useful, and accessible web sites and user interfaces." The site began as a project of the National Cancer Institute to find evidence-based usability guidelines so that they could make cancer information easily available to the public. The product, Usability.gov, is available to the public as well as federal web developers. Several of the World Usability Day panelists remarked that a plus to working in government is that they can "steal," or adapt, the work of their federal colleagues for their own projects, and agencies actively share their solutions within the federal community.