Advice on website design…….from the government?!?

21 11 2009

Perhaps you are as surprised as I was when I stumbled across a unique website created by the United States government that provides useful advice on website design tips, tricks and tools?

Who would have thunk.

The website is Usability.gov, which is run by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. I knew this website was a break from the norm when the first title on the homepage reads, “Please don’t make me think!” Along similar lines, the color scheme is vastly different from other government websites I have seen. Instead of relying upon blue hues and shades of white, which tends to be standard government website fare, there is an abundance of orange, raspberry purple, teal, yellow and white. Certainly this is not what I would have expected to see prior to visiting this site.

I find this website encouraging for a variety of reasons.

The Mission: to serve as a hub of resources for government website designers to construct more user-friendly websites

The Content: numerous documents, lessons and pointers of design processes

The Resources: various case studies of improved government websites, free design templates and additional educational tools to further design study

Needless to say, this website is a great resource for presenting and understanding basic website design principles. What really surprises me, besides the fact this information is coming from the United States government, is that this website is not more prominently marketed. I for one had no idea this resource existed online. Did you?

There are many websites that could benefit from the principles and resources discussed on this site, regardless if they are public or private sector related.

The wealth of information presented is impressive and for good reason. Instead of simply stating things should be done one particular way, Usability.gov presents actual case studies conducted by government agencies. Under the Methods section on the homepage, you can view several clearly defined categories of ways to approach website design. The categories are as follows:

> Planning the Project

> Analyze Current Site

> Design New Site

> Test & Refine the Site

> Methods at a Glance

I clicked on the Analyze Current Site option and was presented with six sub-topics, each presented in short one or two sentence summations with an accompanying link for further information. This is designed well as it is easy to read and does not represent a cognitive overload.

At this point, I decided to explore the Personas sub-topic. Clicking on the link loads a page with short but clear explanation of key aspects related to analyzing online user personas. At the bottom of the page, a real   example of a user persona is presented from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.    Additionally, the side bar contains several additional real government agency examples of user personas that can be downloaded as Microsoft Word documents.

The information contained on this page alone is insightful and very relevant. Many people complain or assume that the government operates under a veil or secrecy and the public has no idea what really is going on within the halls of power. To that I say, explore Usability.gov. Here there are not just examples outlining how government entities establish and refine their online presence to better serve constituents but great tools that private individuals can use to make their own personal website more user friendly.

As mentioned earlier, I hope this website gets more publicity, it certainly has earned it. Hopefully, my blog post will divert some folks to look into this resource.





Encouraging Web design from the USPS

14 11 2009

When it comes to government websites, it is a rather safe assumption that very few people would characterize them as being aesthetically pleasing or easy to use. With that in mind, I recently was surprised by the United States Postal Service website.

From my perspective both as a citizen and as a student of interactive media, simplicity is tremendously important to website design. It does nobody any good if content is available online but the means to access it is so convoluted that people do not realize the power at their fingertips. Luckily, the USPS realized that a strong design premise would serve their organization’s needs online by way of catering to American’s mailing needs.

Immediately upon loading the homepage, I realized the color scheme is neutral but effective. The white color is, dare I say it, calming! Never would I think dealing with the USPS would be calming. However, for the website it works.
USPS Homepage

Clearly the website design was conducted from a users perspective. Based upon my recent research, this is a rarity for government sites as many are designed from a government agency perspective not the public user perspective. As your eyes descend the page, information is segmented into horizontal oriented boxes. This helps to show separation between different tools and features on the same page.

One of the best elements is a simple step-by-step animation showing how to take care of your shipping needs right through the website. It is appealing to the eyes and simple to understand. Instead of becoming lost in paragraphs of instructions, the images do much of the work. This helps to engage the user and I bet increases efficiency of the user experience as well.

In order to minimize the number of pages on the site, the use of interactive slide shows is demonstrated on the homepage. This is a good use of such a tool because it shows information that is of interest to the user only of the user wants to be exposed to it. Currently, this feature is used to showcase different holiday stamp collections being released in anticipation for the holidays. Not everyone will care to learn of this information so instead of making users wade through it in order to get to what they were looking for, it is made available in an unobtrusive way where the user has control.

There are a wide variety of tools and functions associated through the website. Some of these include:

  • package tracking tool
  • holiday mailing deadlines
  • postal rates
  • change of address capabilities
  • business mailing resources

Many more features are presented through the homepage, the ones above just represent a handful of what is available. Overall, the USPS website provides a plethora of tools for people to access online to assist in their shipping needs. The fact that this has been done with a keen eye towards design and functionality is encouraging as it bucks the trend with most government websites.





Analytics and government Web spaces: together or apart?

11 11 2009

Analytics are important in an online, multimedia world. I have touched upon various facets of this reality in prior posts. But one aspect I have not heard much about is how analytics can be used for public sector websites, in this sense government websites.

I had the privilege this morning to sit in on a presentation by Mark Tosczak, Account Supervisor at RLF Communications, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Greensboro, North Carolina. Even though his perspective represents 15 years of professional communication experience largely in the marketing and public relation fields, several key points he made hold relevance to government websites.

Analytics should be used to assist in understanding how people use Web based resources. Furthering this line of thought, Tosczak made a clear distinction that in order to put the analytics data to work it must be understood. Compiling large data sets will do nothing to improve Web performance or improve user experience if nobody on the development end of a Website has any idea what the data indicates.

Is it possible that the same information that can be pulled from analytics can be deciphered by other means? I think so. Additionally, I think analytics and other approaches should have their own respective seats at the proverbial Internet table. This is exactly the point made by Avinash Kaushik, a Google Analytics expert who heads the Googlepublicsector blog. He emphasizes that instead of relying on vast data streams and trying to interpret them, government websites could accomplish just as much by simply asking visitors directly how their visit to a specified government website turned out.

  • Did they find what they were looking for?
  • How easy was navigating the site?
  • Will they return in the future?

All of these simple questions can be answered via a quick exit survey, minus any analytics.

When analytics are used however, they should be closely tied towards goals. Tosczak indicated that goals are closely tied to measurable actions. Analytics are rather useful in reflecting these measurements. This may also be true for government websites, although it can be very difficult to isolate an exact goal for some political related spaces online.

Overall, analytics can play an important role in helping to understand what is happening online. However, they should not be the only source to guide major decisions relating to usability and website design. That is why simple surveys hold power in this process, in tandem with analytics. Considering both Tosczak, focusing primarily on public relations and marketing, and Kaushik, focusing primarily on government topics, regard surveys as useful applications for gathering information, this should serve as a signal that not all eggs should be placed in the analytics basket. Instead, they should be part of a omnidirectional approach for noting what is happening online and how to advance an web site using the collective intelligence from multiple types of resources.





Applying public ideas to government in the Lone Star State

2 11 2009

I recently completed an academic research paper examining some of the ways in which interactive media, which for sake of this post will include social media, is relating to government. It is along these lines that I find it very fitting to devote a post to the efforts being undertaken in a small Texas town, which could prove to be a litmus test for government adoption of new media tools.

Thanks to the terrific website govfresh.com, I learned about an interesting scenario playing out in the Lone Star State. Manor, Texas is now utilizing the power of collaborative, social crowd sourcing to improve governance. At the very least, that is the idea behind the application called Manor Labs. Essentially, the town realized that there are issues that could be improved for the betterment of the community. However, the questions that come up often in any government body is how to best approach an attempt at a solution to a given problem. Instead of relying upon the combined perspectives of an esoteric few officials huddled inside a boardroom at city hall, why not open up the thought process to the public, the constituents, who interact throughout the community on a daily basis in a multitude of ways. The officials of Manor, Texas Manor, Texas decided to take this process a step further. Instead of limiting idea contribution solely to those living within the town limits, anyone who has Internet access can provide a suggestion. I think this is an excellent advancement to an already great idea, mainly because chances are good that another community elsewhere has or is dealing with similar difficulties and people from these communities can easily provide suggestions that may be applicable in Manor. Voila, a potential solution from someone who has never set foot inside this Texas town!

Motivation can sometimes be lacking when it comes to public participation in local politics this is nothing new. One potential motivating factor may assist in convincing people to check out the Manor Labs application is that of Innobucks. These serve as a currency within the Manor Labs space and can be accumulated from ideas being submitted. A marketplace is therefore present within the application so users can choose to cash in their Innobucks for real, tangible rewards. Although the selection is limited, users Innobucks could be used to spend a shift riding along with the Chief of Police or be Mayor for a day or win a unique custom framed Texas flag. Texas flag

What is happening in Manor, Texas is exciting and could serve as a very valuable model for other communities in the years to come. The fact that a smaller Texas town has realized, coordinated and enacted a working system to harness public insights for the sake of making a better community is proof that government can work for the people. I am curious to see how Manor will build off of this application to make government even more responsive to public input. The future of government, especially relating to interactive media, may be before us in Texas, we all should be taking notice.





Before my whole life goes online, who’s calling the shots here??!?

28 09 2009

People are social creatures. Sure, there are varying degrees of truth to this but underlying our existence as life forms is our reliance on others for a wide variety of reasons. As babies we rely upon parents or caregivers to supply food, we interact with our peers as we mature, we turn to others for advice on a plethora of topics and most of us appreciate a good laugh or two among friends.

With that in mind, social networks are increasingly becoming hotbeds of activity as we move more of our daily lives online. We seek out answers to questions online; we socialize via Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging programs. Greater reliance upon online resources presents dependability issues. Will the tools we rely upon continually be there? Can we trust the tools we are using to help us or will they hurt us? Furthermore, who is control of these tools we use? A much more significant question is who is calling the shots throughout the Internet? Control is becoming one of those topics people approach with great care, skittishly poking and nervously prodding without an idea of what to expect. Internet control is the metaphorical gorilla in the room, a gargantuan one at that. More superficial examples of this struggle are exemplified today in countries such as China and North Korea where government factions hold reign over public Internet access. Is this a proper course of action? If you ask anyone who has experienced the freedom of open Internet access and the ability to speak their mind, the answer would most likely be a resounding no. Democracy extends its advantages to the online space as well in this regard. However, even democratic societies will have to tackle the issue of Internet control soon because the over exertion of control by single-minded individuals or groups could present tremendous problems by silencing perspectives that free populations appreciate. In turn, a worldwide domino effect can result as different sides vie for the ability to have the last word. That last word could be laying the potential groundwork for the Internet’s future.

Who is really in control?

Who is really in control?

To muddle the topic of Internet control even further, the concept of a lifelog is becoming gradually closer to reality. The term if in reference to a person essentially having every record of their existence placed online, accessible through the Internet. I like to think of this as an electronic Social Security card, passport and birth certificate combined into one while vulnerable to electronic eavesdropping. Call me pessimistic but I see tremendous problems with putting people’s lives online to such an extent that privacy becomes a foreign concept. Granted, I may be presenting my perspective on these topics through the view of someone living in the year 2009. Perhaps, over the next few years, people will realize and believe in a shift towards greater trust in the Internet to such a degree that becoming a “person” online is comforting. I can assure you of one thing though; I want to know who is in control of the Internet before I will be translating my real life into an all-encompassing electronic existence.