Usability and Usability.gov

I’m a big fan of the “Redesigning the Government” project over at Sunlight Labs, especially their latest mock-ups for the FCC.

One particular part of their post rang true to me, as I’m frequently tasked with developing information architecture for government websites:

“In many discussions that we’ve had with people who develop these sites, they’ve told us that they feel the need to cater to all possible audiences. Although an understandable impulse, this becomes problematic when they try to cater to all audiences equally…When they don’t sufficiently prioritize their different audiences, they fall into the same old traps: including as many links as possible on the home page.”

In my job, we often encounter the same issues. We recently conducted an informal, internal audit of government websites, and with the exception of a dozen or so sites created since January, most fall into the homepage link trap. Why? One reason might be guidance posted on Usability.gov.

Based on research and analysis by the Department of Health and Human Services, this comprehensive document is intended to guide website development throughout the government. The guidance in this document is very good, and in my opinion WebContent.gov and Usability.gov are great resources for web designers and developers inside and outside of government. That said, the examples provided with the recommendations do not always achieve the stated objective.

Here’s an example:

Chapter 5: Homepage [Download the chapter]
Section 5.2
Guideline: Present all major options on the homepage.
Comments: Users should not be required to click down to the second or third level to discover the full breadth of options on a Web site. be selective about what is place on the homepage, and make sure the options and links presented there are the most important ones on the site.

Example:

I don’t think the guideline here is wrong, necessarily, but the comments and example provided show an interpretation of that guideline that is very literal. A more nuanced approach to this guideline might result in fewer options on a homepage in order to guide the site’s audiences to important information more quickly.

So, my question for the community is: When developing your agency’s site, do you follow Usability.gov? If so, to what degree? Is it a requirement for you, or more of a resource? Do you get push-back if you interpret the guidelines in ways counter to the given examples?

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Profile Photo Meagen Ryan

Ed,

Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that some basic level of standardization-whether it be an icon, or the placement of common elements-could be implemented across federal gov’t websites to help the public identify and use the sites.

I also agree that homepage real estate must be apportioned carefully. Gov’t websites tend to be very content-rich, so there’s no way to get everything on the homepage. “Logical and intuitive” clicks, as you point out, are key. I’m of the opinion that users care more about getting to the information they need in a logical and intuitive way and less about the number of clicks it takes to arrive there.

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Profile Photo Tim Verras

We’re involved with a lot of city websites and they tend to fall into the same trap. The problem is endemic to the structure of municipal government: just because the city is divided into departments doesn’t mean the website has to be divided into those same departments. Not everyone knows the organizational structure as intimately as the city employees, who are often tasked with designing the IA for the site.

Fundamentally, a city’s website is for disseminating information and to that end, the site should be structured around providing the most commonly sought after information up front. What kind of calls come into 311 or City Hall? If folks are looking for council transcripts, don’t bury them under three levels of city council pages. Put them up front. People calling for Parks and Rec events? Make the calender visible on the first page. No one should have to search for the online ticket pay program. The easier it is to pay tickets, th more revenue the city gets! The spirit of the usability.gov posting you quoted is correct, but it provides no direction on how to make it happen – don’t make people dig three levels, but also don’t make them think about your organizational structure (to borrow from Krug).

Too often, when websites are forced into 508-compliance the tendency is to just push out as many links as possible, but with good IA you can have your cake and eat it too.

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Profile Photo Meagen Ryan

Tim,

Thanks for sharing your experience at the municipal level. I like that you frame the issue of homepage content around questions like “What kind of calls come into City Hall?” I often use a variation on that question, something along the lines of “What are the top 5 questions you are asked most frequently that you think the website can answer?”

I also like the quote “With good IA you can have your cake and eat it, too.” I may borrow that.

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