Is the Government really practising what it preaches? As Lucian Hudson takes up post as the first government director of e-communications - dubbed the Whitehall Webmaster - we asked three commercial Web design and development companies to look at the current state of some government Web sites.
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One general criticism levelled at all the sites surveyed is their lack of customer focus. "Collectively, they make assumptions that people coming onto the sites are feeling in a positive frame of mind, ready to absorb copious amounts of information, and that they have time to do so," says Nick Birch, creative director at new media design agency White Space Interactive.
"A good site should be designed, written and constructed in line with customer needs and in the same way as for any other marketing medium.
"Most government sites are too product-led and too concerned with what the Government is up to, rather than taking the information and translating it into interesting, useful, value-added content for us as students, business entrepreneurs or consumers."
Prime Minister's Office (www.number-10.gov.uk)
Bryant points out this site has benefited from a redesign following its launch, when many users found the original too difficult to navigate. "It now looks clean, relatively modern, but still carries off a necessary air of gravitas," he thinks.
Birch agrees that "the overall visual approach is strong. It manages to fuse the tradition and history associated with Number 10 with a contemporary feel for the Web which gels nicely."
However, Birch suggests the layout of the home page does nothing to entice visitors into the site."It makes it difficult to see what's included at a glance and demands time and attention, a sure-fire way to create a high volume of click-offs," he claims. Colebourne and Bryant are both impressed that a text-only version of the site is available. "It's a useful touch for hard-core researchers or users with poor connections, such as modems," says Colebourne.
Navigation and structure are both felt to be fairly straightforward and mostly self-explanatory, although Colebourne points out the secondary navigation - tour, news, links and sitemap - is swamped by the overwhelming size of the "10 Downing Street" graphic and disappears altogether on other pages.
Birch finds the search feature quick and fairly comprehensive. "It took me to the page I wanted without having to go through endless sub-menus," he points out. However, Colebourne finds the search engine disappointing, providing no positive results on a search for 'Webmaster General'. "But at least, it is accompanied with brief instructions on how to use it," he says.
"The demand for content about or from Number 10 is questionable, given the site is primarily a propaganda vehicle for the Prime Minister, rather than a public service," Bryant comments, "but I think the site strikes the right balance, with videos of Prime Ministerial speeches and debates, a magazine about government initiatives and content for schoolchildren about the Prime Minister's office, as well as the usual news, policy papers and so on."
Birch thinks pages could benefit from a short summary at the beginning to allow visitors to scan content quickly, especially in the magazine section.
Our reviewers were:
E-envoy's Office (www.e-envoy.gov.uk)
Bland and uninspiring is the verdict - and very disappointing, given the role the e-envoy is supposed to play in promoting the e-economy.
"This site would not inspire professionals involved in e-business. It looks as though the Government doesn't take the subject seriously and is out of touch," says Birch.
There is little consistency between different sections, so it's not clear they belong to the same site. "A mishmash of legacy pages tied together by a gauche front page," Bryant concludes.
"There is no central navigation - just sporadic, fragmented hyperlinks," Colebourne points out.
Birch agrees. "It doesn't have a formal structure and is made of many different pages, all formatted differently. You're never sure if you're still in the same site, or if you've jumped to another one," he says. "There are also no search capabilities."
At the same time, Bryant points out, no real distinction is made between different types of content. "All words start to flow into one another after navigating the site for a few minutes," he finds.
"The e-envoy should be championing the interests of UK e-business. But with a site like this, few e-business professionals will feel the e-envoy represents their sector."
Limited content, lacking substance relevant to anyone interested in e-issues. "It submerges in too much jargon and focuses too much on themselves, who they are and which ministers are involved," says Birch. "Yet another example of failing to 'connect' with or provide value for the visitor."
Score: a disappointing 3/10
Cabinet Office (www.cabinet-office.gov.uk)
Bryant points out that this site "uses a very simple design, obeying basic rules of accessibility and usability - but communicating complex information in a simple list format does nothing to enable users to relate to it."
Colebourne feels little thought was given to portraying the essence of the Cabinet Office and what it stands for. "The site looks low-budget. Overall, it is bland, making it hard to target areas of interest," he suggests.
Birch agrees: "The home page does nothing to entice me to delve further. It demands time and attention to decipher what information is available, and overall it is uninspiring. Yellow is a difficult colour to read online. It feels out of character with the Cabinet Office and the official language the site uses," he says.
The structure is universally condemned. For Bryant, this site exemplifies "internally run government sites,designed around needs of the department rather than needs of the user. This site has to ensure government functions remain distant and mysterious to most of us."
Colebourne points out that because the main menu - which is, in effect, a toolbar - occupies half the screen on the home page, users are forced to return to the home page before navigating to the next section. Also, the search function is unavailable when the site is reviewed. "The site index goes some way to help navigate specific content, but is limited," says Colebourne.
There is lots of content, but it is hard to get at. "The site is okay if you're after specific information, but doesn't give a good representation of the overall function of the Cabinet Office. The information would also benefit from being organised into more easily digestible formats," says Birch. "Really, it's a lazy site, demonstrating total disregard for its visitors: it's not for thenon-political animal, school child or consumer. It makes little effort to 'connect' with its non-political visitors."
Department of Trade & Industry (www.dti.gov.uk)
Our panel finds the layout of the DTI's site to be clear and simple - if not terribly exciting - and easy to navigate and understand. "It looks like a corporate Web site, which gives a reassuring feel," thinks Birch.
Colebourne finds the sections "well categorised and intuitive" and the quick links on the left hand tool bar to be a useful feature. But he feels it is let down by its poor search engine.
By contrast, Birch feels the search capabilities are "quite good and comprehensive". But he adds that it could be hard to find information because the text is clumped into large paragraphs making it difficult to read.
Content is fairly comprehensive, although broad rather than deep.
Bryant likes the way it is "sensibly fenced off into different areas for a variety of users, making it a useful resource in some cases."
However, Birch feels the content is rather impersonal. "There was nothing on the home page - such as newsworthy items - to pull me through," he says.
Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions> (www.detr.gov.uk)
Our reviewers struggle to find anything positive to say about this site. "This site makes poor use of design. Lots of disparate pages are linked by an image map on the home page," explains Birch.
Colebourne agrees: "Poor layout makes the home page an eyesore and nightmare to follow. The menu occupies the entire home page, wasting space and time when navigating. Once the user is three levels down, all identity is lost."
"If you know the structure of the DETR already, this may make sense, otherwise forget it," warns Bryant. "A classic example of designing the structure of a site according to the mindset of its creators rather than needs of its users."
The basic problem, as Birch points out, is "the site contains no formal navigation system, making it easy to become lost and confused. To launch a site without even a basic navigational structure is lazy and amateurish".
Colebourne adds that to navigate from one section to another, you have to keep returning to the home page.
On the plus side, Birch finds the search function works well, although he isn't always sure if the search results are taking him to another site. "I did feel lost much of the time," he admits.
The site does contain a lot of valuable content, if you can be bothered to find it, and it's easy to read. However, Bryant feels the content is "devalued by lack of structure and context".
Birch confirms, "It's not presented in a sufficiently digestible format for most visitors. As with all other government sites, it demands time and attention. We would imagine it has a high early click-off percentage as a result."
UK Online (www.ukonline.gov.uk)
Bryant feels the design is poor and outdated. "It certainly doesn't reflect the site's aim of allowing us to feel part of a progressive online initiative," he says. Colebourne is more impressed. "This site has a more structured approach, with good use of font size and layout and nice imagery based around people, although these images lack clear statements to accompany and enhance them," he says. "It obviously wants to be 'touchy-feely' and personal, but doesn't quite make it." He adds there is also work to be done in terms of branding, especially if the site is not to be confused with ISP UK Online (www.ukonline.co.uk). "A logo, a font, some pictures and colour palette go some way to forming an identity, but not a brand," he points out. "Where are the tangible and intangible assets: the real messages with which people can relate and participate?"
Bryant finds the structure confusing, especially given there is no clear way back to the main site from some linked sub-sites. "It could benefit from being organised thematically or by user," he suggests. "It claims to be for everybody, which is why it is probably suitable for nobody."
Bryant feels the content is limited and badly organised and that it would benefit from more integration with external non-governmental sources and sites. Colebourne feels there is useful content, but points out this is definitely not, as advertised elsewhere on government sites, a "portal".
National Grid for Learning (www.ngfl.gov.uk)
The NGfL pages are simple, clear and easy to understand at a glance. However, Bryant points out "because these pages link to a plethora of unconnected information silos run by different quangos and non-governmental bodies, when users leave the NGfL portal, they get the impression they are on their own, entering a wilderness of poor design, educational jargon and partially implemented initiatives.
"One of the main contributions an initiative as large as the NGfL could make to this sector is to force some data and presentation standards, to make it easier for users to find what they need. As it stands now, this site is a glorified system of links."
"This site is easy to navigate, with consistent menu bars," says Birch, although he is critical of the hyperlinked text, which doesn't indicate when you will be taken to a different site.
The site does include a unified search system, covering a range of related sites, but Bryant points out the search engine tends to return thousands rather than tens of useful results, because it doesn't help users specify what information they're looking for within a particular subject area.
"Another function the NGfL could usefully perform would be championing use of XML standards for the mark-up of data on learning-related Web sites, to enable more specific searching of resources," he suggests.
A wide range of content is provided, although through links to other sites. Birch is particularly impressed by the good discussion area for teachers.
However, Bryant feels the site fails to reflect the recent revolution in online learning, personal development and competency development, which allows people to learn what they want, when they want, how they want.
"Rather than performing crude database searches against broad terms like 'IT' and returning hundreds of offline courses, users should base searches on competencies they have or want to achieve and their personal and career development goals," he argues.
"There are also few collaborative aspects to the NGfL approach, even though online learning communities are a key tool in developing self-managed learning for all users. People learn from people, but if the NGfL site is anything to go by, then government-sponsored learning initiatives can be lonely and unwelcoming. Also, the system is focussed on standard courses rather than modular learning approaches and does not take into account peoples' different learning styles, only modes of access such as online or offline.
"Finally, some learning management system, which would enable users to track learning and build a portfolio of learning projects, would give people a reason to come back to the NGfL site, rather than following a link and getting lost."