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Government web managers needing users to make their websites citizen-friendly should consider recruiting public sector staff or their families as a "cheap alternative" to usability consultancies.

The advice is given in the Office of the e-Envoy's long-awaited 'Quality Framework for UK Government Website Design', which was published in its finished state last week by Cabinet Office Minister Douglas Alexander.

The document forms part by efforts by the e-Envoy's Office to tackle potential barriers to eGovernment take-up, such as poorly-designed public service websites. Its aim is to make government web managers aware of issues they need to address in incorporating user's needs into the design process. The guidance centres on employing the principles of human-centred design to maximise website usability, working closely with target audiences and building services based around their needs, rather than those that government considers to be most important.

Its production has involved a committee of some 23 members, chaired by the e-Envoy's Office, including 'internet experts' drawn from the web design and usability industry, academics, three members from local authorities and the Webmaster of the Prime Minister's Office.

The new framework, which has taken over a year to publish, stresses the "crucial" role of user feedback and the need for testing, at various stages, by groups of end-users who are representative of the website's target audiences. The document puts the 'optimal' size of a testing group for one target audience as six to eight people. But acknowledging that the budgets allocated to government websites vary greatly, managers of smaller sites are advised that students, public sector personnel or family members of staff could be used to "approximate target audiences"

"It is common practice to pay users for their time when testing", the document states, and that depending on the type of person being tested, "some usability companies pay some types of users as little as £20, while paying others as much as £200." It concludes: "A cheap alternative would be to use government staff or their families who are not involved in the development of the site."

An Office of the e-Envoy spokesperson told eGov monitor Weekly: “The framework offers practical guidance on accessibility issues and it is up to individual web managers to identify the most appropriate method for testing their services.

“The framework is clear that for the tests to be effective, any group brought together must be representative of the website’s target audiences. Testing on friends and employees is one method outlined which might be appropriate, depending on the scale of the project.

“It is standard practice for employees to test and analyse products and services before they are more widely used.”

The Office of the e-Envoy’s quality framework itself points out the potential pitfalls of this approach, informing managers to "bear in mind that students may be unrepresentative of the skills of your audience and people from your own organisation may be too familiar with your structure and terminology."

Commenting at the framework's launch, the e-Envoy Andrew Pinder said it was "vital" that government websites were as accessible and easy to use as possible. He added that the document "sets out clear guidance for web managers to ensure they incorporate users needs in their web design process."

Human Centred Design specialist Nancy Perlman of Synchordia stressed that the guidelines were only a starting point. "A large gap opens between reading guidelines and working out their practical application. And there are no shortcuts to wisdom. Guidelines should not be taken as a panacea - follow them, check off the list and voila, usability and accessibility - but seen as a catalyst to embark on a learning journey of trial and error application.

"Guidelines are not standards. For example, if one were to adhere strictly to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Accessibility Initiative guidelines cited in the document, one would be building an unusable, perhaps even inaccessible, site. Some of the W3C guidelines suggest the use of features that are either inconsistently supported across browsers and assistive technology, such as access keys, or are not found to be entirely helpful by the user group they purport to help, such as tab indexing.

"While it is great that official steps are being taken to promote usability and accessibility, the steps should become more assertive. Standard, across-the-board awareness training might be a good start, may be even a requirement. Usability and accessibility are not one-person jobs, but require team effort. And experience strongly hints that unless there is support and understanding at the highest level of the organisation, the efforts made by individuals may not come to fruition."

Copies of the framework are available online from the e-Envoy's Office here.

© eGov monitor Weekly

eGov monitor Weekly is a free e-newsletter covering developments in UK eGovernment and public sector IT over the last seven days. To register go here.

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