Government websites often serve two or more distinct audiences. They have to offer technical content for specialists and easier-to-understand content for the general public. Our experience shows that specialists may crave data in raw form, but the public often needs interpretation to understand what they’re seeing.
Usability testing is a powerful tool to make sure that your website is reaching everyone you need it to. When agency stakeholders sit down and watch real people use their websites, it drives home good and bad design like nothing else.
To see the benefits of usability testing, look no further than the NOAA Weather.gov site.
First Fridays tested the site in collaboration with NOAA’s CIO office and web design team. After watching the testing, the stakeholders and First Fridays team identified these three issues as both important and quickly solvable:
1. Plain Language – The terminology and labels used were either too technical or too abstract for users to understand – a far cry from the Plain Language style required in government. On the homepage, users encountered map tabs for “Graphical Forecasts” and “National Maps”. While these terms have significance for power users, they mean little to casual users.
2. Inconsistent Navigation – The navigation tools were inconsistent and confusing. In the example, the link to NOAA’s main site is provided in the prominent upper left position, while the link for the Weather.gov homepage is relegated to the far right. A user looking to return to the Weather.gov homepage would likely click on the link on the left and end up stranded on the NOAA main homepage.
3. Too Much Information – There was simply too much text on the page. The casual user was confronted with a mass of technical wording and little plain language, leaving them with little guidance as to how to find information that might be most useful to them.
As a result of First Fridays testing, the Weather.gov team was able to create a much more streamlined site, while still providing sufficient information to both casual users and weather professionals. The screen capture below is from August 28, 2012.
1. A Page for Everyone – The tabs on the top of the map were greatly simplified, using plain language to guide users while providing the same information as before.
2. Finding Your Way – A “Home” button was added to each page to ease navigation, and the logos of NOAA and Weather.gov were moved side by side to reduce confusion.
3. Just the Facts – The text on the original page was reorganized to the bottom, and graphics were added for particularly timely and relevant information. The amount of information for both technical users and the general public remains the same, but the user experience is greatly improved.
Addressing the usability of your agency’s website is about more than just identifying aesthetic changes. It’s about making sure that every visitor to your website gets the information they need in a quick and clear manner.
For more information go to howto.gov/firstfridays or contact Jonathan.Rubin@gsa.gov, First Fridays program manager.