Simon Moores argues that the government should spend more time making its websites accessible and attractive.
So here’s the picture. Charlotte, aged eight, returns home from a hard day at school. When she’s finished her homework and eaten her dinner, she and her mother settle down to a family evening testing government websites for usability and political correctness.
If you think I’m joking, then read on. According to the e-Envoy’s "Quality Framework for UK Government Website Design", government web managers needing users to make their websites citizen-friendly should consider recruiting public sector staff or their families as a "cheap alternative" to usability consultancies.
Government has two concerns. Not enough people are using government websites and, if like me, last weekend you were trying to work out how to pay your National Insurance and PAYE over the web, you’ll know it’s not exactly the most user-friendly and intuitive experience available on the internet today.
The good news is that the new framework stresses the "crucial" role of user feedback and the need for testing at various stages, by groups of end-users who are representative of the website's target audiences.
It gives the "optimal" size of a testing group for one target audience as six to eight people. It acknowledges that the budgets allocated to government websites vary greatly and suggests that students, public sector personnel or family members of staff could be used as "approximate target audiences".
What worries me is the suggestion is that e-government is, in theory, supposed to shrink the size of the public-sector workforce, directly or indirectly. But it isn't. If anything, it's getting larger every week, until it reaches the point where everyone who isn’t working for IBM, Capita or EDS is working for the civil service, including Charlotte.
Shouldn’t websites be usable and friendly from day one? Or has any sense of quality - “what is good and what is not good and how do we know these things”, to quote Socrates - flown out of the window?
Perhaps it’s a "king’s new clothes" phenomenon, where everyone involved approves a website which is, demonstrably, awful, a kind of collective insanity which isn’t confined to the public sector.
So, instead of recruiting families to assist in usability testing, let’s start worrying less about guidelines and more about accessibility and what this really means in, first, making government websites attractive and useful enough to encourage people to use them, and secondly for government departments to grasp that delivering a website isn’t the end of the process, it’s the beginning of another, much more difficult one.
What do you think?
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Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.
For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit www.zentelligence.com