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Usability Testing Program Uncovers Why Dot.Govs Failed in 2012


Wed Jan 02 2013


GSA’s First Fridays Usability Testing Program has put together a list of the most common government website fails they encountered in 2012. It was no surprise that the most common usability problems are less about technology and more about communication: jargony content, poor navigation labels, and confusing contact information.

Besides celebrating its second birthday, First Fridays conducted 26 tests on federal websites, mobile sites, intranets, and much more. When immersed in usability testing, you’ll begin to notice the same problems over and over again. In 2012, testing uncovered universal issues: 

  • Unclear purpose of homepage. If visitors can’t tell within five seconds what your website is all about and what they can do there, you’ve got a problem.

  • Poor navigation labels. Keep the jargon in your staff meetings, but when you’re communicating externally, do whatever you can to make menu items in plain language.

  • No idea who is running the show. People should be able to find an “About” or “Contact us” link almost instantly. At the very least, a visual indication of what agency is responsible for the site. If visitors have to think about it, you’ve already failed them

  • Most important content at the top. Go to any decent banking site and you should see the space where you can log in at the top right or left. Why? Because logging in is the most common thing, or top task, that people want to do there, so you make it very easy to spot. If your “top tasks” are hard to find, people won’t do them. 

Here’s a rundown of agencies that did usability testing with First Fridays in 2012: 

  • Ready.gov (DHS)

  • IRS.gov/Retirement

  • Medline Plus (NIH)

  • Search.USA.Gov (GSA)

  • Comprehensive Human Resources Integrated System – CHRIS (GSA)

  • U.S. Department  of Transportation

  • Howto.gov (GSA, 2 tests)

  • FedRAMP (GSA, 2 tests)

  • Recovery.gov (RATB)

  • Army.mil

  • Business.usa.gov (GSA)


  • GSA Insite/retirement (Internal only)

  • U.S. Census prototype (In development)

  • Answers.usa.gov (GSA)

  • SAM.gov (GSA)

  • NASA Mobile Site

  • Saferbus Mobile App (DOT)

  • Regulations.gov (EPA)

  • Saferproducts (CPSC)

  • Federal Service Desk (GSA)

  • FAS Navigator (GSA, in Development). 

You can see more dramatic before and after results on Howto.gov. The program saves an estimated $1.4 million by providing educational and usability services and teaching agencies how to conduct their own testing. And that figure doesn’t take into account the significant savings usability tests provide by avoiding expensive redesigns or other development costs. 

More than 450 observers from 20+ agencies observed tests this year. Three graduates from the usability training program went back to their home agencies and created their own usability testing programs. First Fridays also started testing iPhone apps, card sorts, expert evaluations, hallway tests, and more. 

If you’re interesting in having the usability team take a look at your federal product, simply fill out the application form.

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