Argument for Standards

Most e-government sites are confusing, but some states are making it easier for citizens to find what they need.

by / February 9, 2004
Imagine how annoyed you'd be if your car's steering wheel randomly moved to different parts of the car, none of the knobs indicated what, if anything, they did, and the gas and brake pedals switched positions every few days.

You'd probably buy a horse and buggy and wholeheartedly embrace the Amish lifestyle. I know I would. At least I could count on getting homemade fudge now and then.

A drastic example, but it illustrates exactly what happens when someone tries to traverse the numbingly confusing terrain of the modern e-government Web site. It doesn't matter how dazzling an online service is if people can't find what they're looking for.

When citizens come looking for information, they want to find it as quickly as possible, and that's where usability and standards come into play.

As I write this, a handful of states are taking baby steps in the right direction.

The commonwealth of Virginia is in the process of promulgating new policies that cover Web templates, accessibility and usability so government can present a unified and coherent front to the public. Utah is working on something similar. Kansas requires that sites be accessible to the disabled. Indiana created a header that acts as consistent navigation for government sites, so visitors can always tell how to get back to the state's home page. And California is working to get its consistent navigation header accepted on all government sites in the state.

But the journey will be a long one.

Why Set Standards?
A recent study showed one of every three Web site visitors couldn't get what they needed due to poor usability. How can a government agency rationalize not reaching nearly 35 percent of its audience simply due to bad organization and presentation?

Sure, some sites have done a great job. But many more have done a horrible job. Some sites are totally useless to anyone but the designer, and nothing's worse than a site designed by someone under the delusion they're being clever. As the joke goes, "It just annoys those of us who are."

People don't understand when they click on a link on a government portal, they're going to an altogether different agency that often has different standards and goals. They think their government is whole and organized and seamless. And that's exactly the way it should be.

The alarming truth is that the public's approach to government Web sites is in line with a current restaurant slogan -- get in, get out, get on with your life. Visitors don't care what your internal hierarchal structure is, what your director thinks about the future, or that you have menus one can use properly. Your designer may have a wonderful new Flash animation that impresses everyone at the office, but when you pay attention to your audience's needs, that Flash site must go elsewhere.

The public wants to get to what they need. They don't want to relearn navigation with each link they click on, and they don't want to read some programmer's mind to find information about marriage licenses. Usability is like housework; you only notice when it's done badly. With the exception of a few contests and awards, few people will visit a well designed government site and say, "You know, that was the most usable navigation I've ever seen."

Instead, they will acknowledge your hard work by returning again and again. Only when something breaks will you hear from them, which is how it should be. Yet every day someone is designing a site without glancing toward usability or information architecture, making the Web the chaotic mess it is.

In my experience, there are two main roadblocks to getting government standards in place. First is the obstruction created by IT and design staffs of individual agencies. No one wants to give up their baby, and they are equally resistant to being told their baby is ugly. Some designers see templates and usability standards as shackles on their creativity.

In some ways, they're right.

But government Web sites, with the exception of such special animals as museums and tourism sites, aren't about creativity any more than the Department of Motor Vehicles is about selling shag carpeting. They're about information and convenience, and it is possible to be creative within the parameters of good usability. What many consider creative expression is more closely defined as not knowing any better. A usable site can also be a creative site, which Virginia and Maine, to name a couple, have shown.

The other big roadblock is government bureaucracy. Years after meteors have smashed into Earth, making the planet barren of all life, the bureaucracy will be amending forms, adding letters to acronyms, and sending out license renewal notices to mummified husks of constituents. Although there are forward thinkers in government, there are also status quo folks who like things just the way they are and can't see why anyone wants to change things.

To add fuel to the fire, they often listen to designers who -- as creative as they are -- don't want things to change either. For some who are used to the consistency of government service, change can be frightening.

The Future
Standards are coming, and there's no way to avoid them. The public demands accessibility, usability and information architecture. They pay their taxes and are tired of getting a substandard return on that money.

There's no reason to have a government of individual fiefdoms battling each other for Web real estate. We're supposed to work together to make information more available, services more accessible and the business of government more efficient.

Standards will get us there.

Christopher O'Kennon is the director of portal architecture for VIPNet, and the Web usability guru for the commonwealth of Virginia.

Christopher O'Kennon Contributing Writer