Usability Testing for .Govs: It’s the Law

The movement to assess and improve the usability of federal government websites is small, vocal, and growing. GSA’s First Fridays program makes free usability testing available to federal agencies, and a wide range of agencies have undertaken their own regular assessments of their sites and applications. Slowly but surely, the archaic mindset that a .gov site is a data dumping ground — a technical problem to be solved, rather than a crucial hub in an ongoing process of conversing and information-sharing with the public — is dying off. Thankfully.

I think one of the most interesting recent developments is the usability testing that my agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), performed on SaferProducts.gov. GAO evaluates the performance of federal programs for the US Congress, which recently passed a law requiring we conduct

an assessment of the extent of use of the database by consumers, including whether the database is accessed by a broad range of the public and whether consumers find the database to be useful.

“Whether consumers find the database to be useful.” Essentially, Congress mandated that we test the usability of the website — the first time, as far as I am aware, that a website usability assessment has been written into federal law. I hope, and firmly believe, that it will not be the last.

SaferProducts.gov was set up by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (and also required by law) to provide a place where consumers can submit reports of faulty products and companies can respond. Recalls are listed there as well. For our tests, which we held at GSA’s First Friday’s location, we brought in three consumers for one hour each and walked through the site’s top tasks — reporting an issue, researching a product, identifying a recall, etc. I facilitated the tests, which were subsequently replicated with small groups of users in several other locations around the country.

The testing yielded a variety of valuable insights into the site’s usability strengths and challenges. Among other things, the final GAO report noted that

consumers generally could perform basic searches and follow instructions to report an unsafe product, and although none were aware of the site before the tests, most said they would use the site again. However, some of the search functions posed challenges. In addition, some consumers expressed concern about registering with the site and said this might prevent them from completing a report. Other consumers were not clear about the site’s purpose, thinking it would focus on safe rather than unsafe products.

Hopefully the feedback contained in this report will prove valuable to CPSC as they continue to improve the usability of SaferProducts.gov for consumers.

I mentioned that I believe this will not be the last time a requirement for website usability testing is written into law. As .gov sites increasingly become the singular, critical point of connection between agencies and citizens looking for information about the programs their tax dollars fund, understanding the extent to which those sites allow users to have successful experiences and interactions will be fundamental. GAO may well need to have a full usability lab within five years. Other agencies will in turn emphasize testing early on to ensure they’re up to spec before an audit.

All good things! The era of .gov usability is just dawning.

This post originally appeared on my personal blog.

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