eGov Chatter: 15 UPA Convention Take-Aways from 2008

clutterPut about 100 eGov types in a room together, add a dash of international flavor, timely conversation and insider’s knowledge and stir. It’s a recipe for intrigue, intelligence and inspiration. My kind of magic.

When the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) met in Baltimore for their national conference in 2008, the eGov track proved to be a great locale to pick up the latest buzz about what’s on the horizon for this sector. I’ve found that the challenges large government website managers face put them on the cutting edge for topics touching every enterprise site.

This tip-sheet has my 15 takeaways from that event – news you can use to get ideas and information to follow usability in the federal sector. It is also a useful primer for those tuned into the question of the upcoming transition to a new Administration and which policy ideas are perking up.


1. The Procurement Tie-in. Well-placed civil servants in the U.S. government are busy promoting a procurement tie-in for usability when the government purchases IT services. Web managers are befuddled that usability activities are now too focused on the end of development cycles. The preference is to articulate usability goals in the procurement document itself.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has published standard usability requirements for procurement. The goal is tight requirements in contracts and procurement and periodic iterative deliverables. The pervasive issue, according to speakers from the Bureau of Labor Standards and elsewhere is that usability is used as a seal of approval and done too late in the project to make a difference.

2. A Federal YouTube is Near. YouTube is getting ready to launch an advertisement-free zone so a barrier is removed that is holding back the U.S. government from taking fuller advantage of this distribution channel. At a gathering of federal Web managers this spring, leaders in the community urged their peers to get on the social media train or risk being left behind by their users.

This would be a remarkable turn-around for the feds. In February of this year, one blogger flogged several large agencies for blocking employee access to You Tube. It also puts us somewhat behind the Brits – Queen Elizabeth launched The Royal Channel in December 2007 and has 45 videos posted.

3. How do You Win Top Management Support? When the FDA usability guru Sanjay Koyani and his team (who is now at the Centers for Disease Control) worked their latest change management initiative to get buy-in up the food chain, they reframed their usability results as a “risk and embarrassment tour” – language that captured the imagination of senior executives. The problem of lots of spending with little impact was recognized and an initiative to invest energy in top tasks and a unified look and feel for FDA’s public Web site became a “legacy” project for the commissioners.

4. A Web Mystery. Nicole Burton, a top voice engaged in working across the federal government to promote usability and web management, revealed her personal alarm that the government has “no idea what we’re spending or how many sites there are” in the federal government. Some guess the figure could be 24,000. Burton advised her peers to “get ahead of the question of how much are we spending on the public Web” and also ask how well the site is doing on top tasks – Spending priorities should be “reallocated to top tasks” in her book.

5. Calling All Help Desks. Forward leaning web managers are working to integrate intelligence and know-how from the help desk operations to better serve their online customers and anticipate and learn about where visitors are having problems. Too often, these two arms of citizen outreach don’t work together Web manager’s lamented.

6. The British Lead on Web Consolidation. Many are monitoring action across the pond where the British Government is consolidating their websites into two portals – one for citizens and one for business.

One consultant involved in the work on a common taxonomy — called the integrated public sector vocabulary (IPSV) – needed to support this effort said it was heavy lifting with a big payoff. The metadata framework that emerged is a model others can turn to so they can skip starting from scratch.

7. They are Simply Brilliant in Belgium. In Belgium, it was reported that their elected officials anointed a “State Secretary of Simplification” who acts as an ombudsman and agitator for government websites that are easier to use for the average citizen. Brilliant!

8. Profile Your Customers in 5 Hours or Less. At the GSA Office of Citizen Services and Communications usability expert Nicole Burton and her colleagues have produced a “quick and easy” customer profile template they are plugging with federal web managers. The tool gives managers a terrific tool to track the frequency and top tasks of their major audience groups, and could be an insightful jump-start activity for any Web site team.

Following the step-by-step instructions, prep time is probably three hours and the recommended time for your team to collaborate on filling out the profile is two hours – which means you could have this resource complete and ready to leverage for future planning in under a day!

9. Readability Tool Revisited. The Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which measures average syllables per word and average words per sentence formula that computes a readability score filtered to a grade-level, has a hidden quirk. According to Angela Colter, hard returns register a false positive as the end of a sentence so if your formatting is not clean your data is not accurate.

That said, we still like the the test. To turn this feature on in Microsoft 7.0 Word, go to the Microsoft Office Button > Word Options > Proofing > Select grammar with spelling > When correcting grammar in Word, select the Show readability statistics check box.

10. Avoid Setup Mistakes for Collecting Web Analytics. Hallie Wilfert who briefed the crowd with a useful primer on setting up web analytics tools reminded her listeners that you need to lock-out employee IP addresses if you want a true measure of how your customers are experiencing your site. Other common errors: measuring search bots and spider activity – non-human interaction with your site.

Without exclusions, Wilfert says anywhere between 10 and 75 percent of the traffic on your Web analytics tool may not be your real audience. Unless all the agencies agree to the same rules on this, comparing traffic or other statistics across government is a pretty muddy proposition.

11. Rating Your Organization’s Web Maturity. The Maturity Scale published by J. Early was an important tool in structuring their project’s success. The scholar behind this research pin-points management activities that are used at six levels of maturity – from a state where the usability problem goes unrecognized to a state where usability is institutionalized into the way people do business – to give an organization a way to measure how well they perform human centered design.

12. How to Win Hearts and Minds. Susan Boyd and Emma Rose, a pair of Washington State consultants, shared their secrets of success in running Web turn-around projects.

To target the minds, they prepared reports about the success rate when doing usability tests on top tasks, and the system usability score to pin-point a satisfaction measure.

To win hearts, they had a four-prong approach that mixed voices of users (on video where available), staff quotes, awards and endorsements. This streamlined strategy represents a ready-made communications plan for any organization pushing change for their web operation.

13. Will Congress Pass the Plain Language Bill? Dr. Annetta Cheek, who is well known for her plain language chops from her days as an evangelist with the FAA team hopes so. Now retired and running the non-profit Center for Plain Language, she has joined forces with like-minded souls on Capitol Hill to push for Plain Language Legislation: H.R. 3548, and S. 2291 (110th Congress).

The bills cover new documents and websites that provide info on benefits, services or taxes and requires agencies to appoint staff, conduct training and publish regular reports to Congress their progress. Search the Thomas database and select bill summary and status at the results page for current info. It passed the house by a margin of 376-1 (Mr. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, voted no) and was put on the Senate Calendar on July 10, 2008.

14. No more butterfly ballots? The National Institute of Standards and Technology is knee-deep in elections these days, spurred by a 2002 law aimed to put voting systems under the microscope. Sharon Laskowski, who manages the usability group, discussed the work they are doing to evolve voting system voluntary guidelines and test methods with the Election Assistance Commission.

15. My Library of Congress. The Library of Congress has introduced a personal portal called My LOC, casting aside doubts from many in the industry that personalization with government portals is a costly failed experiment. [UPDATE: it is.  Their site is now archived]

I give props to the usability team which brought giant posters of their main pages and invited conference attendees to offer free expert reviews. The site pulls in lots of essentials and gives online exhibitions for their “rare and unique” holdings like the only surviving copy of a 1507 World Map.

Posted on the bottom of every page at MY LOC, by the way, is a site credit that promotes hosting by Terremark and says “powered by Microsoft” – an apparent violation of the House Rules against advertising.