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The government may be very pleased with the launch of its UKonline portal today, but it fails to meet its own guidelines on Web site design, we have discovered.

The civil service laid down some fairly strict ground rules to ensure that every citizen will have easy access to government Web sites - announced with much pomp in December 1999 - but perhaps in a rush to meet targets, two main government portals are found wanting.

While we are all used to frames, JavaScript, graphics and Shockwave, the guidelines strongly persuade against them unless strictly necessary (and even then an alternative must be provided). This is so audio and braille browsers aren't confused.

One concerned reader who has worked on several government Net projects points to several major failings on the UKonline site: first, the opening page relies on JavaScript and Meta tags to forward to the index page and includes invalid HTML.

Running through to the main page, a quick check on the W3C's validation page shows that it fails to meet HTML 4.0 strict standards with a messy XML specification. The front page does have an Easy Access button (with an owl pic) that runs pages in a simple HTML list and is created for braille browsers and with the support of the RNIB. But even this isn't without problems.

For a start, it has hidden frames. It looks as though the designers used a standard frameset and set the top frame to "0" height, rather than create a separate, simple, set of templates. Again, you'll find invalid HTML and a lack of shortcut keys.

A simpler failure grading is given by Cast's Bobby validation software - software that the government itself recommends using in its own guidelines. Even the Easy Access page fails - see here.

Seeing as the UKonline portal is the government's great white hope, this is a pretty poor show (www.open.gov.uk on the other hand is an example of how to get it right). And we haven't even mentioned that the site makes extensive use of cookies - and not many people are going to want government-created cookies on their hard disc. The entire design needs revisiting.

Not only this but another main government portal, www.gateway.gov.uk doesn't work with the latest version of Netscape (6.0). Why not? Something to do with digital certificates. We were unable to confirm at press time whether this gateway was one of the IT projects that Microsoft's team are working on. ®

Related Links

Cast's Bobby software
W3C's validation page
Government design guidelines

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