Internet time catches up with even the best of a breed. Many state government portals are reaching middle age -- five to seven years in real time, or 35 to 49 Internet years.
Middle age is a risky time. People tend to gain weight and lose a little height, while Internet properties begin packing on more of both. There are danger signs that many state government portals may be heavier and longer than anybody intended.
Out-of-shape Web properties exacerbate access issues by increasing load times. Governments have worked too hard on extending themselves across the digital divide to inadvertently take back those gains by serving up pages that take too long to load. Nearly three-quarters of all U.S. households are now online. Roughly one-third have broadband access, which does not excuse wasting bandwidth on excess clutter.
Last fall, an assessment of 150 corporate Web sites by Byte Level and Zona Research concluded that fast-loading, lightweight Web sites are in the minority. By their calculations, this group of commercial portals had an average heft of 89 KB, compared with an optimum weight of 60 KB.
It begged a question about how public-sector sites tip the scales. The Center for Digital Government conducted a weigh-in for state portals -- the average weight is 29 KB heavier than their private-sector counterparts. Only New York came within 11 percent of the optimum industry weight. Only 15 state portals (30 percent) are below the average industry weight, while four states have portals three times that weight.
Height rivals weight as a key indicator of poor portal health. Long-scrolling pages are rarely designed that way -- they just happen. Mark Twain's confession, "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one," is an apt analogy for the hurried pace of portal maintenance -- time enough to add stuff but rarely enough time to purge and reprioritize the front page.
PAPowerPort, the highly functional and award-winning Pennsylvania portal, is coincidently the heaviest and longest of its peers. The right-hand column scrolls on long after the other two have given up -- blame the Twain effect.
Pennsylvania is among the nine long-scrolling state portals that go on for three or more screens. More than half of all states (28) occupy the middle ground with a two-screen scroll. The remaining 13 state portals have reduced the front page to a single screen -- reflecting the no-scroll sensibility common among industry players.
Height and weight are important measures of portals, but other design criteria play a part in portal health as well. Lean and mean are no substitutes for good design and robust functionality. In fact, these four characteristics, when taken together, are the stuff of optimization.
Weight and height are surrogates for load time and scrolling lengths. Because a good score on one measure does not compensate for a poor score on the other, the Center developed a combined, weighted score called the "Load and Scroll Index" (LSI). Low LSI scores indicate good health (fast loading, contained scrolling). High LSI scores warn of degraded performance and scroll creep. (See tables).
The LSI recognizes two things about Web users: They are not likely to wait for sites to load, and most do not scroll beyond the information visible on the screen when a page comes up.
The good news is these problems are chronic only by benign neglect. Revisiting commercial sites that Byte Level/Zona called "chunky and clunky," two of the worst performers (Victoria's Secret and Spiegel) slimmed down by an average of 60 percent since the study.
Where the LSI is concerned, Google may be the Web equivalent of the unrealistic ideal body type -- occupying less than half a screen and weighing in at only 10 KB -- but it proves that simplicity and scarcity are not enemies of functionality and usability.
5. New York
6. North Carolina
4. South Dakota
6. New Jersey
7. South Carolina
Copyright 2003, Center for Digital Government, Load and Scroll Index, 2003.
Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief strategy officer of the Center for Digital Government, former deputy state CIO of Washington and a veteran of startups.