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Website Review of James City County Website

This is a quick usabilty review of the website for the county of James City, Virginia. The site has a lot of info and rich navigation. Overall I found that it is an excellent site, needing only some of the easier and more objective fixes well known to usability practitioners. Here's a screen capture of the site as we reviewed it.




Congratulations! This is a free usability review from "Usability" refers to how easy and effective it is to use a Web site. Although it involves how a site looks (graphic artwork), it is primarily concerned with how a site works, what you click on, what happens, and whether the site does its job. Perhaps this review is all you need to improve your site. If that's the case, great. Please mention if you talk with others who need help with their site.

The following three sections provide a general analysis of your website from a relatively quick review. Although Web design is still perceived as a highly creative endeavor, there are many aspects of it that call for standardization and compliance with widely established conventions. Implementing even a few of the ideas below can really improve a site.


  Part 1: Content Basics
    This first section is intended for typical public web sites (for products and corporate information), but also applies for the most part to intranets and software applications that run in a browser. We've been advocating many of these ideas—in the context of general software—since our 1997 book, Computers Stink, but they've been beautifully enumerated for WWW purposes in Steve Krug's book, "Don't Make Me Think."
      Click for explanation State of the Art, a Model for OthersGreat Work!Does the JobI Can HelpUndetermined/Not ExactlyNot Applicable
Hover for explanation
  1. Logo in top left, linked to home I Can Help As I find on many sites, it's on all pages but not linked back to the home page.
  2. Tagline Does the Job Yes, "Working in Partnership..."
  3. Welcome blurb Not Applicable Not applicable. Everyone who finds the site intentionally knows it's a local government site.
  4. Plain wording Does the Job  
  5. No 'happy talk' Does the Job  
  6. Concise wording Does the Job  
  7. Visited pages are distinguished by link color-coding Does the Job Standard purple
  8. "Utilities" are easy to find Does the Job Top right and bottom of every page
  9. Search on all pages, with box and button Does the Job Consider adding some javascript to make the word "Search" disappear when the visitor clicks in it.
  10. "You Are Here" indicator I Can Help

This is the starting point for what turns out to be the only real clear-cut weakness of the site. After you click Residents, the word Residents should be differentiated or perhaps have an arrow or dot next to it. Same for the second row of items, such as Water/Sewer. See They use white backgrounds.


This is compounded by an item that I don't even have as a checklist item: page titles. When you click Residents>Water/Sewer, the page title is "James City Service Authority Water and Wastewater Treatment for the County." It wasn't until using the site for quite a while that we (my daughter was the tester) realized that the page titles were above (!) the navigation, in the banner area. They were unnoticable because 1) they included additional, constant text, and 2) they were above, not below the item clicked. One expects changes to be below where you take action. Only a few pages have page titles in the body of the pages and it's not consistent to the item clicked. Employment leads to "Employment Opportunities." (I'm not usually a purist, insisting that the words match exactly. But here, page titles aren't even routinely displayed.)

  11. Breadcrumbs' as links I Can Help For instance, breadcrumb links would say Home>Residents>Water/Sewer. Again see for an example.


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Part 2: Visual Design: Fonts, Colors, Layout, Basic Interaction Design, and Accessibility
As we read in a graphic artist's ad, "Technology makes it work but art makes it sell," and you should take heed. We're not graphic artists here at Uinst, but we know good art when we see it and the common denominators that separate good pages from bad are clear. Look at the top sites and you'll see they spell out the following criteria.
  Click for explanation State of the Art, a Model for OthersGreat Work!Does the JobI Can HelpUndetermined/Not ExactlyNot Applicable
Hover for explanation

Sans-serif fonts

Does the Job  

Appropriate background color

Does the Job  
Appropriate color hues Does the Job  
Visual representation of the information hierarchy Does the Job This is mainly accomplished by the two-row navigation. For a local government siter, there's not a strong visual aspect to the hierarchy.
Conservative quantity of colors Undetermined/Not Exactly Might be room for a graphic artist to have his or her say. The green/red borders on the subpages isn't ideal, and a few pages accumulate more color on table rollovers and right-side navigation.
Text sizes are "relative" Does the Job Yes, when you use the browser text size function, the letters enlarge. It could use some HTML layout work to make the letters fit.
Anti-aliased graphics Does the Job  
Graphics' file size doesn't slow navigation Does the Job  
"Alt tags" used well I Can Help I didn't see any on any pictures. For instance, on employee photos, their names should be in the rollover text.
Links don't just say "Click Here" State of the Art, a Model for Others Lots of links are correctly nouns and verbs.
A style sheet (CSS) is used Does the Job  


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Part 3: Genuine Value: Useful Content & Critical Interaction Design

And now for the hard part. If all of good Web design were as clear-cut as parts 1 & 2, above, you wouldn't need much judgment and there would be a lot more good sites. But the easier the decisions are, the less significant the thinking and effort behind them... and the easier it would be to provide useful content. This section is where you make or break your rapport with the visitor. If you provide real value and give folks enough tools to get to it, they will push past the basic omissions and ignore even the most amateurish art.
  Click for explanation State of the Art, a Model for OthersGreat Work!Does the JobI Can HelpUndetermined/Not ExactlyNot Applicable
Hover for explanation
1. Questions are answered Great Work! I searched for info on whether I could burn leaves and found it immediately. I don't suggest that this simple test is conclusive, but the site shows signs of having lots of info.
2. Search results get the job done Great Work!  
3. Effective 'click tree' Undetermined/Not Exactly The two-row main navigation is effective. There are some challenges though: 1) the various sub-sites to which the site links, but this is an unavoidable challenge for any government site. 2) Tthe "More" links call for more study. 3) Some choices, like "Employment" CHANGE THE TOP NAVIGATION BAR. It isn't until you study it a little that you know it has changed and you're in a sub-site with different navigation. This could be surmounted by changing the color of the navigation bar, but only if that's the only option.
4. Conceptual flow from upper left to lower right Does the Job Yes
5. Simple, outline-like site map I Can Help It's there, but hidden on the search page, upstaged by the ABC order listing. Furthermore, the site map isn't really a site map but a short list of only the topmost navigation options. The importance of an outline like site map is to give visitors a chance to understand the overall organization at a glance.
6. Primary navigation is obvious Great Work! Yes
7. Secondary navigation is obvious Undetermined/Not Exactly This doesn't refer to the second row of the menu but the links on the left side. More study could determine what is needed.
8. Contact information easily accessible Great Work!  
9. Links are clear Does the Job  
10. Intro panel or animation not excessive Does the Job  
11. Graphics used only for core message Does the Job  


Summation & Next Steps

Overall Rating: Strives / Survives / Great Work! Thrives


  1. When the user clicks on the top navigation items, don't change the top navigation labels. For instance, when they click Employment the labels change as if the whole site is different.
  2. Add "you are here" indication to the top navigation, arrows or color change.
  3. Put page titles on every page right below the navigation.
  4. If possible, add breadcrumbs, but the this is just another form of "you are here" info with a slight categorical form of navigation added. Not urgent.
  5. Add an exhaustive site map, indented to match the hierarchy. Add it to the top right links.
  6. Have a graphic artist simplify the palette a little.
  7. Try to clean up text layout when the user enlarges text.
  8. Note: when trying to select text, such as the title of the Water/Sewer page, it selected everything but what I dragged over. See if you can support routine text selection.

Hope this helps and let me know what you think,
Jack Bellis,

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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