Are Federal Web Sites Really Bad?
As I was cruising the news this morning, I came across an article on nextgov.com referring to the quality of federal web sites. (http://tinyurl.com/d7uq93) In the article, Allan Holmes discusses a few of the challenges that face government agencies as they take services and information online. Mr. Holmes also presents somewhat opposing views from other bloggers on the topic. Rather than debate or comment on the views presented, I’d like to make an additional point, specifically regarding experience, user experience to be precise.
So let’s think about this, just like commercial organizations, the quality and capabilities of the IT resources found in the federal government varies from agency to agency. You can find bright minds, innovators and hard workers just as easily as you can find folks who are having a harder time keeping up. So, the debate, in my opinion is not the quality of the people and, for that matter, not even the quality of the tools (hand coding vs. Dreamweaver for instance). However, what many agencies are missing is a depth of understanding with regards to creating online services and sites that are intuitive and easy to use. I’ve met many very capable government IT people who can discuss architecture, data modeling, etc., but, very few who understand aesthetics and usability.
This said, is it really fair to suggest that aesthetics and usability are the IT’s shop responsibility? Maybe, maybe not. Since many citizens are now comparing the quality of government online services to commercial concerns, perhaps, it would be fair to take into consideration who is usually responsible for such things in, let’s say, a software company. Since it is the goal of any software company to sell as many of it’s products as possible, usability, aesthetics, and the efficiencies of the user experience are all critical. If people find the software hard to use or unsatisfying in some way, it is very likely that people will look for alternatives. With this in mind, companies, especially these days, spend a great deal of time and money on getting that experience right. Mostly, this is done through having the right talent available as well as a rigorous process to test new ideas. Once the experience is designed, it is then that things get handed over to the development team. (In reality, this is an iterative process, but, this is not really relevant to my point.) Also, keep in mind that commercial organizations have marketing departments who are usually quite fussy about the look and feel of anything the public sees. This certainly has an impact on what users see and experience as well.
Now compare that to a government IT shop. Most IT shops in government were built to internally support the agency they belong to. Generally they are quite competent at infrastructure, architecture, custom software development, maintenance and support. However, very few IT shops have the experience in house required to build a product or service. Sadly, unless you engage with the large SIs, there are also very few contractors who have this experience as well. Compared to commercial product organizations, trained designers are harder to come by, there’s little in the way of guidance with regards to a consistent look and feel and there is little or no experience with building for a finicky user population that might just choose to go somewhere else.
So, perhaps, many people have been just a little hard on the dedicated IT folks that work for the federal government. Rather than ding them, perhaps those of us with industry experience in building products could join together to advise them.
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