Business may have trouble making money out of the World Wide Web, but for governments, Web sites are now a major communication tool.
A few years ago I managed the Australian Taxation Office's main Web site - ato.gov.au - at that time receiving four million hits a month and arguably Australia's most visited and least popular Web site. Nobody came to Tax for fun, and I wondered how many of those hits were from people clicking all over the Web site because they could not find what they wanted.
The question is: how do you connect people to the information or activity they want in a simple, easy way that satisfies the requirements of both the agency and the user?
Failing to give a user what he or she wants - in a form and a language they can readily use - has a high dollar cost. If a user cannot find a satisfying answer on the Web site, their next logical step is a phone call or a visit to the front counter. Thus a routine enquiry that might have been answered online at minimal cost becomes an expensive drain on staff time. Good Web site usability saves money and creates happy clients.
Lloyd Sokvitne is the manager of information systems development at the State Library of Tasmania in Hobart, and is responsible for the usability of Service Tasmania Online (STO). Sokvitne is a librarian, so not surprisingly, the STO Web site uses an advanced subject index and provides various alternate "paths" to a common core of information. Service Tasmania is a portal site in that it links to other agencies' Web sites rather than holding large amounts of data itself - STO is the Tasmanian government's starting point for users seeking information or making transactions.
"A Web site should be there to meet the needs of your users," Sokvitne says. "To do this you must have a clear view of who your users are and what your content is: the Web site is the way you bring those things together. Usability is giving your users the outcome they are seeking - and that is where you should start when creating a Web site. The test of usability is: can a user actually achieve what they came to the Web site to achieve?"
To help meet that test STO provides a number of paths to the same packets of information via high-quality metadata, building on research by Sokvitne showing that users choose different paths to the same information in roughly equal numbers. The approach is designed to make STO a single gateway that does not require the user to know where the information comes from or how it is delivered.
"Unlike some of the older Web sites, on STO there isn't just one single way in for all users. We have designed our Web site to provide different ways to find the same information. Some people like to use a task or subject link from the front page, while others prefer to use the search engine. Our audience includes pensioners, disabled people, migrants, agricultural workers, people on slow connections and numerous other variations," Sokvitne says.
"Most of us make assumptions about what we think our users want, but you must test those assumptions on the Web site. You can do this by sitting with users and getting them to think aloud as they tackle various tasks on the Web site. This can be a sobering experience when you see users having problems with icons, terms and descriptions you thought you'd got right.
"Usability is not about whether a user likes something - it is about what works."
Sokvitne says the STO's objectives are well understood and supported by senior management. He sees the biggest challenge facing Web sites as getting the amount of information provided to users right - not too much or too little.
A Creative Solution
Taking a different approach, Danielle Freeman of PictureAustralia at the National Library of Australia in Canberra manages an award-winning Web site that solved a thorny problem in a creative way.
PictureAustralia is the front end of a massive image database distributed across a range of cultural institutions including state, territory, national and overseas image collections. PictureAustralia faced the question: how do you present 600,000 images to the public without overwhelming your audience? The answer was to create a number of "picture trails" from small groups of images carefully selected to provide an introduction to specific topics.
A key objective was providing access both to researchers - who usually knew exactly what they were looking for - and to casual browsers wanting to explore the wealth of images on offer.
Freeman defines usability as "a combination of graphic and system design that gives the user the best possible chance of moving through the site and undertaking the activities. The PictureAustralia Web site is designed to deliver in the most intuitive and logical way possible." He says that experience has shown that users don't want to read a lot of instructions and won't persist if they can't find what they are after quickly and easily. "An appropriately designed and usable site helps meet their expectations of easy access to relevant information," Freeman says.
Freeman's considerations go beyond the simply practical: "Good usability can subtly direct the user through the site to get the outcome they are after - without the user even thinking about the mechanics behind their actions.
"For example, users seeking images of a relative for a family history, the suffragists' movement for centenary celebrations or Ned Kelly for a school assignment, may need a range of different pathways to this material. If they can find these images through a simple search direct from the home page, without needing to read help, and then can go on to easily find simple information about reuse of these images, they are likely to find their interaction with PictureAustralia positive. Good usability assists in delivering this outcome."
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