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GSA aims to make agency websites more user-friendly

The General Services Administration is dedicating the first Friday of every month to ensuring agency websites are more user-friendly. GSA cautiously and quietly launched the program in August, but success has placed its services in high demand lately.

The First Fridays Product Testing Program provides discounted testing to agencies whose websites have a lot of traffic and known flaws. The program evaluates how volunteer users interact with specific site content.

Nicole Burton, user experience evangelist at the GSA Office of Customer Service Excellence who helps manage the program, says although the tests aren't statistically significant, the most serious problems are fixed, and the technique improves customer service. Burton and her team did not have to purchase any new technology or equipment to launch the program. She says usability testing can be carried out with the technology available in most modern offices.

At each session, three volunteer participants from the federal workforce navigate the specific website. Two GSA team members observe and take notes on the ease with which the participant accomplishes certain tasks. At the end of the testing, the team, agency Web managers and third-party observers discuss the most serious problems with the website.

On Dec. 10, Burton and her team tested online passport pages for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. The website provides information on obtaining passports and visas, as well as warnings and other travel-related resources. At the end of Friday's session, the State Web team received a list of the site's 10 most serious problems and quick solutions to minimize the issues almost immediately.

In January 2011, the team with will test USAjobs.gov.

Although its main goal is to provide agencies with discount testing, Burton said the program was created in part to raise awareness of the value in the technique. She hopes the program will teach those who are not user experience professionals, such as Web managers, how to conduct site navigation testing at their own agencies.

Burton and her team invite any federal employee or government contractor interested to sign up to watch from an observation room as the team conducts the testing. They usually allow between eight and 12 observers for each session. The team also aims to reach a wider audience by broadcasting future sessions through a free webinar.

Burton believes the methods applied in the First Fridays program can help agencies meet requirements of the 2010 Plain Writing Act and the president's push for transparency in government. "We only launched the program five months ago, but already I see that the easiest, most effective fixes are related to correcting poor Web writing. We see too much unfocused and bloated content, poor headers and subheaders and top tasks that are poorly labeled and buried deep in the pages," said Burton. "Plain writing is the corrective measure for all these problems."

Federal employees and contractors interested in serving as test participants, or who want to observe, can send their contact information to Janelle.Thalls@gsa.gov. Agencies also can nominate their websites via that e-mail address.

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