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Website Review of USA.GOV

I was requested to review, not by someone claiming to be involved in the site, but to help with the design of another public site (wink, wink... "it's not for me, it's for a friend.") OK, sounds good to me, and an approriately prominent subject for what might be one of my last free reviews. I'm not able to find enough free time to keep doing them at the frequency requested; I'll post a fixed price for this sort of review, and if possible I'll consider doing free ones on some sort of periodic or promotional basis.




Congratulations! This is one of our last free usability reviews 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.

Here's a larger picture condensed top-to-bottom:

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 Undetermined/Not Exactly Mixed results. The principle is there, but there might be too many exceptions. For instance, once you get to the elaborate Search subsite, the logo is "scoped" down to that site, which despite a separate domain name is really part of the same site from the user's perspective.
  2. Tagline Does the Job "Government made easy." (Interesting... fascinating actually, in that the creators of the site convinced someone to put in a tagline. I think it should be more customer-focused than to include the word "government," but that's another matter.)
  3. Welcome blurb Does the Job I originally rated this item as "N/A" thinking everyone should know where they've come to. But think of an apsiring immigrant... they need at least a short sentence saying that this is the official site, not a private or business attempt to look like it. Ordinarily this should always be at the top, but since I can't think of anything other than this one sentence, it's fine at the bottom... and it's there! Nicely done.
  4. Plain wording State of the Art, a Model for Others I thought these three deserved extra credit considering that most folks would consider government the ultimate language "obfuscators."
  5. No 'happy talk' State of the Art, a Model for Others  
  6. Concise wording State of the Art, a Model for Others  
  7. Visited pages are distinguished by link color-coding Does the Job The "visited" color is customized (from the standard purple) but it works. They seem to have made it gray... almost matching my long-term prediction that black will be come the predominant color for underlined visited links (so they match surrounding text).
  8. "Utilities" are easy to find Undetermined/Not Exactly

My eye immediately went to the "Change Text Size" feature but I didn't immediately notice the utilities below it; they're the only thing without a "callout" box or icons. It's a very busy page, which is understandable given the 370 million stakeholders, so any see my good example from a Microsoft page or even the White House site. It mostly means adding icons. On some pages like Search, it stands out.

  9. Search on all pages, with box and button Does the Job  
  10. "You Are Here" indicator Undetermined/Not Exactly When you drill down from the top nav, the second level isn't always indicated. It's hard to consider this a failure knowing what the likely challenges are... the sub pages might serve many realms. The left nav does indicate where you are.
  11. Breadcrumbs' as links Does the Job Yes, but I noticed that when I click them, the left nav disappears. Hmmmm... it's actually something else that causes the left nav to appear and disappear... not sure.




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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 Maybe all companies should start off with a flag instead of a corporate style guide?
Visual representation of the information hierarchy Undetermined/Not Exactly Beyond the top nav, there's no feel for "being anywhere." This criteria is one of our checklist's most subjective/ambitious items and for this site in particular, judging it is commensurately challenging. I think I could safely say "no" it does not have a strong visual representation, but it's presumptuous to flag it as failing the criteria if I don't know that a solution is feasible. I searched for the site map to determine if a solution was imaginable, but couldn't find it.
Conservative quantity of colors Does the Job  
Text sizes are "relative" Does the Job Pleasantly suprised to see that the browser's feature to increase the size worked, since these guys are the purveyors of the Americans With Disabilities Act 508. It's an interesting question, since these guys are the model(?) whether the menus and other navigation should enlarge, too.
Anti-aliased graphics Does the Job  
Graphics' file size doesn't slow navigation Does the Job  
"Alt tags" used well Not Applicable Better than most.
Links don't just say "Click Here" Does the Job  
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 Does the Job

After initially thinking, "How can I even pretend to do a cursory examination of this criteria..." one that challenges even small websites, I relented and went right to the foot of the mountain and typed "Iraq policy" into the Search box. Within either 2 or 3 clicks the White House site was there and the PDF of the July 12, 2007 "Initial Benchmark Assessment Report" was coming out of my printer.



2. Search results get the job done Does the Job See above. Obviously not a comprehensive review, but what do you want for a nickel, lobster?
3. Effective 'click tree' Does the Job This is actually the "central dogma" or holy grail of web design, hidden in a three-word criteria. It means, do you find yourself "pogo-sticking" back and forth before you find what you want. For a vast site, it's difficult. I'm crediting
4. Conceptual flow from upper left to lower right Does the Job  
5. Simple, outline-like site map Undetermined/Not Exactly

1) I don't know if a simple outline is possible.

2) Until 2/3 through this review, I didn't find the "Site Index" link at the top! Maybe I was sleepy or maybe it was the word "Index" (this, even though the techwriter in me has argued for the historical precedent "index" for years, but stopped bothering!). Most probably, I didn't "absorb" the word Index because I expect the Site Map feature to be in the upper right. Thus my sensitivity toward standard design elements does translate into an innate rigor in my own perception.

3) Oops, searching for the site map showed it as the second hit on the search page and then failed with "The webpage cannot be found."

6. Primary navigation is obvious Great Work!  
7. Secondary navigation is obvious I Can Help

The left panel and second top bar appear dynamically. Perhaps a comprehensive review of the site map could uncover a static solution.

When you go to the Chat page the primary navigation is replaced; a better solution should be considered.

8. Contact information easily accessible Great Work! Fairly intricate but in contrast to pure-play websites that try at all cost to prevent contact, the info is there and they appear to consider this a primary focus of the site, not a utility.
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

I'm sure anyone visiting this site with a distinct, real need, could instantly come to the completely opposite conclusion that I have. That's the nature of web usability and the likely problem with such a huge site.

  1. Review the site map of core pages and see if the primary and secondary navigation could be stabilized and made uniform. The fact that the site spawns so many independent sites shouldn't prevent organizing the innate pages. For an example from smaller government, I like which is on my Website State of the Art page.
  2. Move Site Map to the upper right.
  3. Add icons and a soft callout box to the page utilities.
  4. Continue to review real users' actual search activity and tune the results accordingly.

I did not initially try to study or understand the site as a whole. As one studies the site, it seems that it is a collection of focused "index" or link pages in addition to a strong set of utilities or "contact" techniques (chat/RSS/phone numbers), compared to other sites. Perhaps the site index could not just indicate but emphasize which links are outside of maybe a two-sided tree whose visual purpose is to make the array of institutions the key value that the site provides. The site is actually a big interactive map to institutions, but the user doesn't see this... it becomes a constant surprise. It's not a bad thing, it's a reality. The question is, how can the site continue to provide its basic search/browse value but grow into a bigger role... showing off the most accomplished organization in the history of civilization, the US Government?


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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