As a Human-Centered Design consultancy, we’re always on the lookout for the best ways to present and organize information so that customers can find what they need. In our 25 years of working in this field, we’ve discovered that the most effective websites share a handful of high-impact traits. If you’re looking to boost the usability of your website, here’s where you should focus your efforts.
Use Plain Language
Using plain language means communicating with your customers so that they can understand you the first time they read or hear your message. Plainlanguage.gov has a wealth of guidelines and training resources on the subject (it’s also a great example of intuitive, usable web design).
Tips for Implementing Plain Language on Your Website
- Aim to make your content clear, concise, and well-organized.
- Avoid using acronyms, technical jargon, legal language, branded terms, and convoluted wording whenever possible.
- Consider creating a style guide for your organization, like this guide from 18F, an office of the U.S. General Services Administration. This will help ensure that everyone who contributes to your site is communicating in the same way.
Think Twice Before Using Branded (or Insider) Terms
On the whole, the website for the City of Kansas City, Missouridoes a lot of things right. The navigation and content hierarchy are clear, there’s good visual contrast, plenty of white space in the design, and the site appears to be organized around visitors’ most commonly requested tasks. However, the site does feature several branded terms that might be hard for visitors to understand without additional context.
Take, for example, the button on the homepage labeled “KCMO 311.” If you click it, it opens up a window where you can report a problem, check the status of a request, or submit a service request. But the name itself isn’t very informative. In order to know what it means, a visitor would first have to understand that:
- KCMO is the abbreviation for Kansas City, Missouri
- That 311 is, in many places in the country, the number people can call to access municipal services
That could be confusing for a variety of reasons — for instance, if you weren’t born in the U.S., if you lived in a city where 211 was the number you called for local services, or if you were a mega-fan of a particular alt rock band from the 90s.
If you want to use branded terms on your site, be sure to provide context. Better yet, opt for a label that doesn’t need any explanation (e.g. “submit a service request”).
Establish a Clear Content Hierarchy
You should put everything your customer could possibly need right on your homepage, right? Wrong. Too many options can lead to analysis paralysis — i.e., confused (and frustrated) customers who leave without finding what they need.
Tips for Improving Your Site’s Content Hierarchy
- Identify the top 3-5 tasks that people come to the website to complete and feature those first. This both eliminates choice overload and makes it easier for customers to find what they’re looking for.
- Use white space and the Gestalt law of proximity to group similar categories of content.
Make Content Accessible to People Using Assistive Technology
When people use screen readers and other assistive technology to browse the web, they often tab through headings and links to find the information that’s most relevant to them instead of reading a page from beginning to end. That’s why it’s so important to use descriptive headings and links, and to make sure they’re presented in a logical order. By optimizing your website for assistive technologies, you’re not just ensuring that it’s accessible to customers with disabilities, you’re making it easier for everyone to use.
Tips For Making Your Content More Accessible
- Use scannable, descriptive headings.
- Links should let customers know what to expect. (USA.gov does a great job of using descriptive links; Arizona’s Department of Gaming does not.)
- Include informative and concise alt text for images.
- Break up long paragraphs into bullet points and chunks to avoid having walls of text.
- Avoid using complex data tables, sub-bullets, and bolding, which can be hard for screen readers to navigate and interpret.
- Ensure that all headings and links are correctly nested and listed in a logical order.
Include a Summary at the Top of Every Page
A page summary allows users to quickly understand what the page is about and whether they are in the right location. The summary at the top of this page on the site for California’s Department of Motor Vehicles makes it obvious what content customers will find.
Likewise, Washington’s Department of Transportation provides summaries at both the top of the page and for each of the categories listed on the page.
Organize Your Site by Task, Not Audience
Oftentimes, government websites organize their IA (short for information architecture, i.e. the structure of your website) according to the audiences they serve. The problem? Most people don’t come to your site thinking of themselves as a particular type of audience, and there may be a significant amount of overlap in what each of these groups is there to accomplish. Instead, you should organize your IA by task, like King County’s Department of Elections does.
Instead of organizing its site by audience (i.e., voters and candidates), King County’s Department of Elections focuses on what people are there to accomplish.
Breadcrumbs are a type of navigational element that help customers understand where they are on a website and allow them to easily backtrack to a parent topic — something that’s essential on a site with lots of pages.
Keep Your Content Up to Date
Few things will annoy, confuse, and erode the trust of your customers faster than trying to set up a new business (or apply for aid or change their legal name), only to realize that the step-by-step process on your site is no longer accurate. If you work for a large organization where many people contribute to your site — and there aren’t clear processes around when and how to update it — old and inaccurate content may be the status quo. One of the most powerful ways to ensure that your site is usable is to keep your content current.
Tips for Keeping Your Content Fresh and Relevant
- Conduct a yearly ROT audit to identify and archive or eliminate any content that’s redundant, out-of-date, or trivial.
- Assign content owners for each area of the website who are responsible for ensuring that content in their section is accurate and current.
- Consult with your legal department over how long certain content (announcements, policies, laws, and rules) needs to remain on your site. In many cases, it can be archived after three years.
Out-Of-Date Content Negatively Impacts User Experience
The Washington State Department of Transportation engaged Anthro-Tech to help overhaul its website, which hadn’t been updated in 15 years and had ballooned to more than 14,000 pages. Over the course of the project, we streamlined the site, reducing its footprint to under 2,000 pages and improving how it was organized so that users could more easily find important travel information. These changes improved the site’s usability score by 27 points and boosted its grade from an F to an A.
If you want to boost the usability of your government website, you should:
- Use plain language
- Establish a clear content hierarchy
- Make your content accessible to people using assistive technology
- Include a summary at the top of every page
- Organize your site by task, not audience
- Use breadcrumbs
- Keep your content up to date
Knowing what to do is the first step—planning and implementation are a whole other ballgame. That’s where it pays to work with an expert.