From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Watchdog Agency Blames Usability; Says British Government Websites are Poor Taxpayer Value

Britian’s National Audit Office (NAO) report to Parliament in July said, in so many words, that the government’s websites are underperformers and represent poor value for taxpayer money. The Ergonomics Report™ asked an expert in website usability, whose background includes work on government sites, why the government and taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth.


The NAO scrutinizes public spending, reporting to parliament on how efficiently and effectively government departments and agencies use public money.


Its July 13 report, “Government on the internet: progress in delivering information and services online,” was produced for the agency by a team from the London School of Economics and Oxford University. It opens on a positive note, observing that users rate government websites reasonably well and that departments and agencies have made progress in providing a wide range of information for the public on the Internet. Usage is encouraging and has risen over time, according to the report, and some sites are very popular. Jobcentre Plus, used by 78 percent of job seekers at least once a week, tops the popularity list. And the statistics show users have warmed to renewing their road taxes and filing tax returns online.

The Directgov and Business Link sites were also popular, according to the report. They passed muster with NAO focus groups, who found they were "laid out clearly." 

No other sites were singled out for praise. Users told the report team that some sites are too complex to understand and navigate, and that information useful to them is often hard to find within large amounts of policy material they don’t regard as relevant. Many sites were judged to be too text heavy. The team saw the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) site as a particular offender. Users interviewed about their experience reported that they became lost in complex documentation looking for tax codes.

The report noted that the average central government site had 17,000 pages, yet most of their search engines "often fail to work satisfactorily."

Of the 3,400 forms available to download, according to the report, only one in eight could be filled in and returned online. The vast bulk – 85 percent of forms – still need to be printed and filled out on paper.

Government websites had "improved slightly" between 2001 and 2006 in terms of quality and about a tenth of all government sites had made "major improvements," the report notes, but one in six sites were "significantly worse".

Information on the cost of providing information online and user data also need to be improved, the report said. A third of departments and agencies have very little knowledge about how much their online provision of services is costing them. And most departments do not have sufficient information on who is using their sites and how they are being used.

Elisa del Galdo has both a wide view on the usability issue as the Chief of Technical Staff-Europe at Human Factors International, a consultancy that offers global services in user-centered design, and an inside view from some prior work on government website projects. The Ergonomics Report™ asked her to explain why it is such a challenge for the government to get its money’s worth when it comes to websites.


There is enthusiasm for usability and also knowledge of best practice, she replied, but it appears that the United Kingdom government is not great at managing very large projects. “You can’t implement best practice usability or user experience if you don’t have good project management in place that includes usability, … it has to sit within the process.” If the process is broken, then it is very hard to make usability work. “[It] doesn’t stand on its own.” 


You hear about one to two-year projects delivered three or four years later – way over budget, she added. You hear that the entity wanting the project has moved on and no longer needs it, or the technology or requirements have moved on. “They take things in such big chunks, such that they can’t actually deliver them on time.” On the projects she was involved in, del Galdo said, “there was just this feeling that they were managing opposing positions and weren’t sure what criteria on which to base decisions.” The interested parties, such as the business or stakeholder requirement, the IT arm building the site that just wants to get on with the job, the design agency, and the usability arm, “all have their own agenda which isn’t conducive to moving that process along unless there have been usability objectives, criteria and metrics on which to base design decisions.”


Asked if strong project management could be credited with the isolated successes singled out in the NAO report, del Galdo replied it’s likely with those that “usability was brought in very early, user and stakeholder requirements were determined early, design assumptions were validated, and the process incorporated user testing.” You can’t really design something unless you know the requirements of what you are supposed to be designing,” she added. There might be different user groups, such as a government department, civil servants, and citizens. “Unless you understand system requirements of all of the user groups, there is no way you can design something that is adequate for everyone.” 


She agreed when asked if poor timing – usability introduced too late in the picture – could account for some of the underperforming sites. “It’s the whole process they are using. They have probably started building before they have actually finished designing. The technical specifications are probably done. … But you need all the pieces of information before you can actually start building.”


One of the biggest problems of biting off “this huge chunk to design,” del Galdo observed, is that it takes too long. … If the design keeps expanding, it is a never-ending project. “Even if you do get it done, when you introduce a new part of the system, introducing that change makes the way people work change – introducing change creates change. As you move on and modernize the system, what you thought you were going to build in the next installment could be completely different, because people have started to work differently.”

The NAO report notes that the government plans to close 551 or more of its present 951 webs and move what it calls “customer facing online information” into two main ‘supersites’ –  Directgov and With a caveat, the report approves of the move and describes it as “a promising new initiative” because users appreciated the content and presentation of Directgov. Because it is an “ambitious programme,” the report added, it “needs to be carefully managed and kept under regular review.”

When asked if “ambitious programme” – another way of saying “huge bite” – spelled doom for the ‘supersite’ project, the usability expert conceded that it could work. “What they really need to do is understand who is using the system … and what it is they want to do before they actually start creating the portals.”

The report recommends that the government should develop revised standards for its websites and none should go online unless they met accessibility and usability criteria.

Del Galdo also sees standardization as the way forward. If what the NAO is doing is trying to promote best practice in terms of website design and usability, she explained, one of the most important things they should be doing is talking about standardizing how all of the government websites work. “So if you have to register on a government website, then every registration page should look exactly the same on every government website. They should not be spending money ‘reinventing the wheel’ for every new site design? And why are they making people have to learn how to use what is essentially the same page over and over again because the design is different? Every time I have to register on a government website for something, there may be more information that is needed, but it should look familiar to me. It should feel comfortable. If I have done it before, I should be able to take the experience of the learning from the first time I have used that type of page and transfer that learning to the next government web site.”


In general, standardization is missing on government websites, she noted. It would be helpful and increase productivity greatly for site developers to say, “ ‘OK, I need a page that is a second-level page. It is very heavy with content. I know exactly what that should look like and I can retrieve a template for that page type from an online repository. So the new page that is created is has a consistent look and feel to similar pages within the site and across all government sites.’ ”


Del Galdo advocates the use of page templates. It’s about the transfer of learning, she explained. “[From] my first interaction, I get value as I learn because when I go to the next page, it’s going to behave like the page before. [And] when I go to another government website, I have the same experience.” She sees this direction as a money saver for taxpayers. Standardization based on best practice and consistency is not only good for usability, but provides a good rate of return on investment as each page design is used again and again

The NAO report concludes that there is scope for departments and agencies to improve value for money in the provision of online services. Among its recommendations, the NAO says that departments should carry out regular research to ensure they are providing services appropriate to the needs of the public and gain better knowledge about how people prefer to access government services. They should also collect and analyze usage data and feed it directly into the design of government websites, maximize the visibility of government websites on search engines and ensure that websites meet accessibility and usability criteria for the people that use them.