The British National Audit Office (NAO), an agency that scrutinizes public spending on behalf of parliament, charged in July that all but a handful of the country’s 951 government websites don’t measure up when it comes to usability. Along the way the office has taken on the role of arbiter of sound website design for public bodies. It instructs them by example on http://www.nao.org.uk, where it also offers best practices advice. The Ergonomics Report™ investigated the site after the report was released, and polled two usability experts on its strengths and weaknesses. It appears the Audit Office doesn’t practice everything it preaches.
The site preaches restraint for government sites without mentioning the word. By present-day standards, nao.org.uk is a plain site. A banner travels across the top of the home page, with white hypertext links laid out along a contrasting dark blue strip directly underneath. The graphics are few in number and none is bigger than a large coin. The links are mainly hypertext, not graphical elements. The home page amounts to a statement that visual creativity, Flash and animation have no place on a government site, and that .jpegs and .gifs need to be kept in check.
The home page text is sparse, as is the word count on individual pages, so it seems the Audit Office is mindful of the criticism it leveled against government sites in a 1999 report to parliament and in the second one in July. It complained that many sites are too text heavy. The average central government site had 17,000 pages – roughly equivalent to that of a large department store.” The Audit Office’s own site appears to have fewer than 100.
The ‘Best Practices’ section of nao.org.uk advocates pithiness, while delivering advice on ways to increase the usability of content.
The site was built with Microsoft Front Page 5, using cascading style sheets.
No Faulting the Responsiveness
All of these aspects of nao.org.uk are regarded as standard ways to speed up the responsiveness of a website. Typing in the URL, visitors will find the home page comes up in a flash and the links to inner pages are no less responsive.
Neither of the experts asked to evaluate nao.org.uk faulted or even commented on the responsiveness of the site, an endorsement by default.
The Audit Office advocates measures to improve user accessibility to a site, and comments that most of its own website achieves an “A” rating from the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). A World Wide Web Consortium initiative, WAI offers strategies, guidelines and resources to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities. NAO notes that the site missed out on an “AA” rating it because of a large number of Adobe Acrobat pages.
The Audit Office has chosen what it calls a “toolkit navigation structure.” It’s described in the ‘About This Site’ section as having tiers that “enable you to drill down, as you judge appropriate, to focus on the areas of developing or evaluating your approach to communicating with the public.”
Each tier, it says, has five key aspects listed to the left. There are three to four high-level questions listed under each key aspect, with one to eleven detailed questions under each of those. Cases that support each detailed question make up the last tier. A full site map shows the whole toolkit structure.
Two Different Viewpoints
The Ergonomics Report™ contacted the Nielsen Normal Group in California, consultants who describe themselves as pioneers of user-centered design, for an opinion on the usability of nao.org.uk. Chris Nodder, a User Experience Specialist for the group and formerly Senior User Researcher at Microsoft Corp, found some features praiseworthy. “It appears that the designers of the NAO website gave good consideration to their users and those users’ tasks. The navigation bar has been arranged to direct visitors to distinct task or information based sections of the site which each give relatively clear information.” He also noted that the links are placed on “information-carrying words.”
Information can be located through full text search, publication search, publication list, a site map or an index, he added. This should satisfy both searchers and browsers, [but] the publication listings and search results pages “would benefit from more than one line of information about each result in order to help visitors better choose the document they require.”
He commended several steps that were taken to ensure accessibility. The site’s text resizes under browser control, he noted, and presents a condensed view on smaller devices. He found other aspects less satisfactory. Some information “is written for a higher reading age than we would like to see,” he said, citing the whistleblower page as an example.
Nodder also found the Adobe Acrobat pages an issue: “Although there is an HTML summary of PDF reports, “it would be helpful to have the whole report available in HTML format from the site.”
He saw a flaw in one aspect of the navigation: “It’s a shame that the banner is still active on the homepage, redirecting people to … the homepage! This is a common and easily fixable error that still catches site visitors out.”
The report to parliament complains that government sites, in general, are hard to navigate and users have to wade through masses of irrelevant information to find what they need. For some of the same reasons, the second usability expert polled by The Ergonomics Report™ found navigating nao.org.uk a taxing experience.
Navigation Without Direction?
Elisa del Galdo is the Chief of Technical Staff-Europe at Human Factors International, a global usability and user experience consultancy that offers services in user-centered design. “Looking at the NAO website, it’s a fairly simple design on the homepage,” she explained, “but there is nothing on here that tells me, ‘where to go or what I can do on this site.”
She also finds fault with the presentation of the content. “One of the first links I can see [is] a hypertext link to something about the comptroller and auditor general,” she explained, “so if I’m coming to the NAO website, is that important to me? Probably not.” When I get there and go to that hyperlink, del Gardo aded, there is no way to get back to where I was other than the back button.
“[There’s] a bit of content in here about good practice,” she observed, but “good practice for what?”
Del Galdo also points out inconsistencies in the nomenclature. The ‘Vacancies’ link leads to a recruitment page, she noted. “Are [‘Vacancies’ and ‘Recruitment’] the same thing?” Referring to links for ‘News’ and ‘Press,’ she asked rhetorically why they are different. She also questioned the use of a ‘Search’ button on the menu at the top of the page: “If I have a Search, why don’t I just put it on the page? Why do I have to go somewhere else to search?”
She also noted the lack of a secondary navigation system. There’s a site map on nao.org.uk, she noted, but it is “pretty damming” if a site map is required to get around. “You should be able to tell by looking at the global navigation and secondary navigation what is available on the site. It should give you an idea of where you are, where [you] can go, how [to] get there and how [to] get back.”
It can be taken by the way the NAO has presented its toolkit navigation strategy that it is impressed with the idea of “drilling down” through tiers for ever more detailed information. Del Galdo faults the way the technique has been utilized on nao.org.uk. “When I drill down, I don’t know where I am, and how … I get back. And how do I find it again if I don’t know where I was?”
“The thing is, you don’t learn as you use this site. Nothing you do is helping you understand how the site is organized, such that you can transfer the learning from one experience to the next. Ultimately, making it easy for the user to predict how to navigate the site.” She described the site as “a little bit free form,” and said she has to go through the same process over and over again the next time she goes in. “I have no mental model in my head of how the website is organized.”
She was asked to grade the site for usability. “My feeling is that its lack of structure makes it difficult to navigate, it appears as if it could benefit from user testing to determine how typical users would like to navigate,” she replied. “As an organization … trying to promote good and best practice, … they have not followed some of the most basic design elements of best practice for usability. … If they want to promote best practice, they need to practice best practice.”
The NAO report declared that the government should develop revised standards for its websites and “none should go online unless they met accessibility and usability criteria.” The comments from the experts suggests those criteria would need to be a little flexible for nao.org.uk to be assured a place on the Web.
Sources: National Audit Office; Chris Nodder; Elisa del Galdo
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2007-07-27.