What makes a Web site -- form or function?

A list of the 12 worst government Web sites criticized those sites mostly for their design. Readers say content and functionality are better criteria.

What do you look for in a Web site? Is the site’s design important to your user experience, or do you care more about content and functionality?

The question comes up in readers’ responses to our post on Information Week’s list of the 12 Worst Government Web Sites. The criticisms IW aimed at the sites, which ranged from those of the Army Special Operations Command to the State of Illinois to the nation of Cambodia, in many cases took issue with the sites’ design. The use of color, white space, fonts and images all played a part in how IW judged them. 

However, our readers disagreed with that approach. 

“I expected to hear about sites that gave no information, had broken links, prevented the user from finding the information needed, etc.,” wrote one reader, “not whining about pixilated JPEGs and being ‘stuck in 1997.’ ”

“I echo comments above about focus on form – fonts, colors, pics, scrolling,” wrote Ed in Monterey, Calif. Ed also implied that how one views a Web site could be a generational issue, writing, “Congratulations, YOUNG man, for reminding us how much more important form is than content."

Generational or not, it’s clear that some readers have a different view of what makes a Web site good or bad. And at least one other wondered about the definition. “I read your article and hunted around for a definition of a ‘downright awful user experience.’ You offered none, nor did you offer any explanation of any type of criteria you used to determine these were the worst. Simply saying something is bad doesn’t make it so.”

Several readers looked at the list in relation to the White House’s Open Government Directive, although IW didn't mention the directive – we brought that up in our introduction. The directive is one reason the list drew our interest, although our mention of it may have caused a little confusion.

“Does Cambodia's Web site really fall under the Open Government Directive?” wrote one reader. We think IW was just trying to add an international example.

“It's one thing to review the top 12 worst sites, it's another thing to talk about worst implementations of the Open Government Directive,” wrote a reader identified as a state Web designer. “While the [National Transportation Safety Board] does have a modest Web site for the Open Government Directive, many of the other links provided here do not. So it's hardly a fair article to the victims. Additionally, the directive is a monumental challenge for some government entities, many faced with budget cuts, staffing cuts, privacy issues, and a lack of expertise for implementing the Open Government Directive on their level. … Complain or point and laugh as much as you'd like (I've done it enough myself), but until one really understands what they've got to work with for staffing/funding, taking pot shots at government Web sites is like kicking an overweight, two-legged lame dog, barely able to hold itself up. Go easy on them.”

Meanwhile, one reader offered a couple of potential additions to the list, writing, “Somewhat ironically, Regulations.gov and OMB's Web site are true enemies of government transparency and are guaranteed to provide a horrible user experience.” But could you define that, please?