Achieving Good Government Web Sites – Still Pushing Up the Hill but These Days with a Smaller Boulder
Designing large websites for the U.S. government is quite a different animal than the work we do for corporate or even non-profit clients. In general, a web redesign is a critical journey, requiring a very outward-focused orientation and a great deal of thought about how users will want to experience information. All major web redesigns tend to require that institutions face difficult strategic and identity issues—with the best results for users generally coming when the process culminates in clear strategies, priorities, and mandates. Results are more mixed when organizations can’t answer basic questions about who they are, what their priorities are, and how they want to relate to their audiences.
What is a complicated step for any organization can sometimes be more difficult in the government space, for a number of reasons. First, the agency structure of the government is mandated by law—essentially creating information silos and a defacto multi-site web strategy (or something like it). However, the purview of various agencies overlap, and from the end-user’s perspective, the information they need may be fragmented across multiple websites. Further, within a given agency, various aspects of their communication with the public may be highly regulated by legislation, imposing another level of mandatory structure unrelated to the web. Finally, even despite an interest in best practices, decision making processes within a government agency may be difficult, and shifting the focus to the end user very difficult to achieve. Many agencies have elaborate “voice of the customer” programs, but in practice, cannot make structural decisions for their web sites that don’t prioritize arcane institutional structure and legislative language.
Having developed the user experiences for major U.S. Government Agency web sites (including major sites for medical insurance, aviation, immigration and forest preservation—you’ll have to guess the names of the agencies), we’ve had great success in navigating these considerations, and helping government agencies to move towards more user-focused design. A key aspect of that work has been a mixture of requirements gathering and simultaneous education, often using examples of best practices from other government sites. That process, when carefully implemented and patiently extended as much as needed, can often make all the difference.
Often, an end user experience strategy can be reached that provides user-centric primary navigation that is supplemented by institution-centric navigation that needs to be there for legal or political reasons. For instance, navigation by colloquial “topics” may predominate and improve usability (and allow for topical changes), while navigation by agency structure may still co-exist, albeit with lower emphasis and corresponding usage. These sorts of compromises can make a huge difference in the modernization of an agency’s web strategy.
The winds of change are blowing, and for the better. The current 2011 administration’s approach to the web, though inconsistent and at times not fully thorough, has marked a major shift towards user-focused design. By creating competing portal sites that aggregate the subject matter of multiple agencies, the administration has created a culture where there is more motivation for agencies to focus on user-focused design. For that reason, as well as more explicit support for user-centric practices since www.Firstgov.gov’s (www.usa.gov) web initiative, it has become incrementally easier to untangle the barriers to better government web sites.
It’s a slow change, but the norms are changing. Though at times it may still seem a bit like pushing a boulder up the hill, the boulder is getting appreciably smaller every year, and feeling less and less likely to roll back down.
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