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.