Friday, August 29, 2008

Another Voice on Common Look and Feel?

Darrell M. West, formerly of Brown University and now of the Brookings Institution, has released his latest review of e-gov: “State and Federal Electronic Government in the United States, 2008.” Like most federal web managers, I have some concerns about West’s studies…how is it that an agency’s score can change so dramatically from year to year, when virtually no changes were made to the website? But that question aside, West’s reviews always are interesting reading.

One recommendation that West makes in this year’s report really jumped out at me. It’s way down on page 8, under “Policy Recommendations:”

“The most striking discovery while researching state and federal websites was the importance of consistency. States that had websites that were completely inconsistent from one agency to the next were harder to navigate, because each site seemed like an independent entity. Sites that were consistently formatted, however, were much easier to use because one knew where to find certain links with the prior knowledge of their relative locations on other state sites.”

And in a box on that same page:

“Agencies should have layouts similar to the portal page so that users can automatically identify that agency’s website as a government unit.”

On this concept, I am in total agreement with Darrell West.

Years ago, we figured out that if an agency used a common template for all of its component offices and divisions, it makes us look better to the public; and, more important, it makes it easier to use our website(s). I remember when I forced all of HUD’s field and Headquarters offices to move to a single template, back in the mid-1990s. I was nearly tarred and feathered. I was pulling all the creativity and fun out of web management. I was too controlling. I was hated. But you know what? It was the right thing to do. The public loved it. We immediately began getting email from our website visitors saying how much easier it was to use the site and how much it made us look like a single, unified agency, speaking with one voice.

Many federal agencies now “get it” and have pulled all (or most of) their component sites into a single look and feel. USDA did a dynamite job doing just that a couple of years ago. So if it’s the right thing to do across an agency or – as West suggests – a state, why wouldn’t it be the right thing to do across the federal government?

Further, I agree with West that agencies should have layouts similar to the portal page, so that visitors recognize us as a unit. The portal for the federal government is USA.gov. You’ve heard me harp on this over and over – it’s a great design, it’s been tested and tested for usability, so why not use it across the board?

Read Darrell West’s report. It’s worth it. And keep mulling over that idea about a common look and feel across the federal government. The time for tough love may be coming.

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