Why is Usability Important for Local Government Websites?

Have you ever encountered a website that was difficult to use or navigate? Or a time when you were stopped from completing a task on a website because nothing made any sense? Of course you have, because the internet is littered with poorly designed websites. The good news is that the trend towards analyzing what users want and incorporating usability into web design is here to stay. But there is still a lot of progress to be made. Read on to learn about usability for local government websites.

Usability - confusing signs

What is usability and user experience?

Usability is a broad term for several disciplines that study the effect of design on the ease of use and level of satisfaction with a product, tool, website, software application or system. Closely related to usability is user experience or UX which is an expansion of usability to include a user’s feelings, motivations and values. Other terms related to usability that often come up in the same conversation include customer experience (CX), interaction design, user-center design, human factors and human-computer interaction (HCI).

Why is usability important?

On the web, usability is a necessary condition for survival for any website that is selling something. For an e-commerce website, a user will leave a site if it is too difficult to use, hard to read or doesn’t answer a user’s key questions – and if they leave, they are not buying anything.

While local government websites are not in the business of selling goods or services over the internet, usability is just as important. A local government website is the one space where public officials have total control over how their city or county is portrayed in a digital sense, and a usable website creates a great first impression for citizens, visitors and businesses. Secondly, a usable website improves user trust in government and allows users to efficiently get the information they need and complete their tasks online. When web visitors cannot find what they want or need on their government’s website, they will resort to calling or visiting the office to conduct business. This ultimately raises the cost of government by making all transactions more expensive.

By embracing user-centric design, local governments can:

  • Produce information that is easily understood and acted upon
  • Encourage participation by making it easy to connect with people
  • Create systems that can facilitate transactions, both internally and externally
  • Deliver information so it can be accessed from anywhere and on any device
  • Increase productivity and efficiency of internal operations

What are key factors driving usability?

Usability is generally defined by these five quality components:

  1. Ease of learning – how easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks when they encounter a website for the first time
  2. Efficiency – once users have learned the workings of a website, how quickly can they perform tasks
  3. Memorability – when users return to a website after a period of not using it, how easily do they remember what and how to do something
  4. Errors – how many errors do users make and how easily can they recover from the errors
  5. Satisfaction – how pleasant is the website in terms of design

Usability is also about understanding the general likes and dislikes of your users. It is good to remember that:

  • Users scan and don’t read in detail
  • Users like content, but images are better
  • Users have limited patience
  • Users don’t make great decisions
  • Users get frustrated easily

Is there scientific proof for usability?

Modern website usability concepts are generally based on two scientific studies – Hick’s Law and Fitts’ Law – both of which proceeded the invention of the internet by several decades. Without getting too technical, here is a brief overview of both Hick’s and Fitts’ Laws.

Hick’s Law is about making choices and how reaction time increases as the number of choices increase. William Edmund Hick was a British psychologist who pioneered experimental psychology and ergonomics, and his 1952 paper became known as Hick’s Law. Another way to look at Hick’s Law is that when the effort or energy to make a decision outweighs the benefit of making it, a user will simply quit and leave your website.

Fitts’ Law is about distance and size – it takes more effort to move a cursor farther and smaller objects are harder to click on than larger objects. Fitts’ Law is based on a 1954 research paper by Paul Fitts which proposed a metric to quantify the difficulty of a target selection tasks or basically, any task that involves pointing. Specifically, the law states that the time required to move to a target is a function of the size of the target and distance to the target. In practical website application terms, this means that it is important to make buttons larger for commonly used activities and to move them closer together and group them to minimize how far someone has to move their mouse or pointing device to click on the button.

Applying Hick’s and Fitts’ to website design

Incorporating Hick’s and Fitts’ into your website design process is critical to the ultimate success of any website. When you apply these concepts to the design of a website, here are a few things to consider:

  • Limit the number of options in navigation, lists and interactive options
  • The more choices you eliminate, the more enjoyable the experience will be
  • Group related elements together
  • Keep web elements at a reasonable distance, but don’t be afraid of white space
  • Go big on your homepage, but not too big

Additional resources

To learn more about usability concepts, here are some great resources to deepen your understanding and get some fresh ideas:

  • Nielsen Norman Group Usability Articles – this is the website for Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman, who are two of the leading thought leaders around usability
  • – leading resource for user experience best practices and guidelines in the government and private sector
  • Usability Body of Knowledge – a project by the Usability Professionals’ Association to collate a comprehensive Body of Knowledge (BoK)

At Granicus, we specialize in helping agencies research and implement user-focused improvements, and are always happy to discuss your particular website needs. Request a free consultation now.

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