The Politics of User Experience

Politics of User Experience: Attempts to influence site visitors’ view of government policy by controlling their site interactions and perceptions.As user experience professionals, we’ve all been hit by the heavy hand of organizational politics. I received my first whack as an intranet producer at MCI in 1996. When I asked why we had a link to a weather site posted so prominently on one of our intranet gateway pages, my boss responded that the CEO liked to check the weather first thing in the morning. Uh-huh.

But organizational politics sometimes pales in comparison to the inside-the-beltway-Republicans-vs.-Democrats brand of politics that has such a significant impact on government websites.

Governments hire thousands of employees and spend millions of dollars on contractors to design, build, and operate websites. Chances are good that you will have some exposure to government work, and therefore, some exposure to the politics of user experience.

In this paper, I’ll detail a few of the more ubiquitous political influences, most of which are not seen outside of government. I’ll then explain why they have a negative impact on user experience and finish by explaining how to mitigate.

Before going further, let’s define a few terms:

Politics. I like this definition from Webster’s: the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy.
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User Experience. My own definition for purposes of this article: the sum total of a visitor’s website interactions and perceptions, influenced by visitor characteristics (knowledge, personality, demographics, etc.) and site characteristics (content, information architecture, visual design, performance, etc.).
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Politics of User Experience. Attempts to influence site visitors’ view of government policy by controlling their site interactions and perceptions.

While user experience is impacted by politics at all levels of government, my focus for this paper is the U.S. federal government. But many of the issues discussed below are also relevant at the state and local level. For example, many U.S. state and municipal governments promote the agendas of governors and mayors respectively — sometimes at the expense of user experience.

Advertorializing
Al Gore may have invented the internet, but the Bush administration is much savvier in its use of the web to promote its agenda. (Please don’t read this as a criticism of the current administration; all future administrations will see federal sites as major policy promotion vehicles.) Features that combine editorial content and promotional material are common, as are advertisements that seem to meld into content or navigation areas.

Promotional activities manifest themselves in two main forms:

The cult of the president
Federal websites are peppered with stories that highlight the president’s activities (“Today President Bush unveiled…”). These “news” items often impact a relatively small audience but command disproportionate attention in the page layout.

For example, the U.S. Department of Labor site recently featured a story about Bush signing the Nurse Reinvestment Act. This was important enough to once command a prominent spot on the homepage, but now it’s difficult to find information on the topic anywhere on the site.

It’s also common to see link labels that highlight the administration first and the content of the link target second as in:

“Bush Administration announces homebuyer protections to curb predatory lending”

The first three words of this label add minimal user value because they don’t help describe the content of the link, making this label less scannable than it could be, and forcing users to work harder to determine the meaning of the link.

Banner ads gone wrong
Over the past year, there has been an increase in the use of small banner ads or icons to promote other government sites.

Most sites link to FirstGov.gov, the government-wide directory site, and this makes some sense. But increasingly, agency sites are posting icons for the White House and USA Freedom Corps sites — administration-specific sites that promote the current administration agenda and do not relate to agencies’ missions.

Because there are no standard formats or placement guidelines for these ads, they often end up compromising the site. The icons are frequently commingled with other site navigation elements, as demonstrated in the placement of the White House icon on the Housing and Urban Development site. This presents another piece of information for users to process as they try to navigate already complex government sites.

In each of these instances, there was a conscious attempt to promote the Bush administration and its policy agenda on agency sites — with minimal consideration of user goals. (I’ll go head-to-head with anyone who says that visitors to the any of these sites have indicated the need for a direct link to the White House site or to see a photo of W. signing a minor law.)

Why does this happen? It’s not because federal web managers don’t understand experience design — most who I’ve talked to seem to have a good understanding of usability, information architecture, interaction design, and branding. While I can’t pinpoint exactly who is driving the “advertorializing” trend (it’s difficult to reliably extract that type of information), I can make an educated guess about what drives this trend.

In all agencies, there are political appointees and other senior executives whose job responsibilities include supporting and promoting the administration’s policy agenda. Since the web has become a vitally important channel to government agencies, these senior managers naturally view agency websites as ideal mechanisms for advancing that agenda. And because they’re usually not well-versed in user experience issues, they usually don’t consider the potential impact of their decisions on site visitors. Even when made aware of user experience issues, the more senior managers will often prevail over the web managers — but that’s not unique to government.

To serve and protect
Laws like the Children Online Protection Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act have received the bulk of attention in the internet community. But a number of laws (such as the Government Paperwork Elimination Act and the Rehabilitation Act Amendment) and “official directives” (such as Office of Management & Budget announcements) that fly below the public radar screen have a significant impact on the user experience of a federal website. Here are three such examples:

Empty cookie jar
Based on its intimate understanding of internet technology (ahem!), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has issued a directive prohibiting use of persistent cookies. This happened despite guidance by another agency that use of cookies posed minimal threat. Virtually no federal sites use persistent cookies, although a few use session cookies to good effect.

The knee-jerk OMB prohibition of persistent cookies was a political decision made to position the government as a concerned party that wouldn’t do anything to compromise the privacy of its citizens. But the government doesn’t have the best track record of dealing with online privacy issues: the exposure of sensitive information on the Social Security Administration site a few years ago and the more recent debate surrounding “Carnivore” (the FBI’s controversial tool for “online wire-tapping”) don’t exactly engender public confidence.

You are now leaving the town of…
There’s an unwritten rule on government sites that links to other sites must first redirect users through a disclaimer page. Legend has it that this policy originated with some Department of Justice attorneys and was picked up by attorneys at other departments and agencies who “encouraged” federal web managers to follow suit. Since the public relies on government agencies to provide “official” and “authoritative” content, there is justifiable concern about liability arising from referring users to erroneous information.

The net effect is that you have attorneys, most of whom are probably not knowledgeable about user experience, determining navigation flows.

Accessibility is not the same as usability
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments is a watershed piece of legislation; among other things it requires federal agencies, and some state and municipal governments, to make their websites accessible to people with visual, auditory, and motor skill impairments. Section 508 essentially puts into law many of the guidelines from the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This legislation was needed, but it’s had a bit of a numbing effect on federal website user experience.

Especially during the period leading up to the regulation’s effective date (June 2001), agencies focused so much on complying with Section 508 that they diverted resources from more fundamental user experience issues such as developing needs-based information architectures. While Section 508 presents technical guidelines, it provides no guidelines for effective interface development (i.e., how to implement the guidelines). This has resulted in some clumsy workarounds that degrade user experience.

That seems to be true of many laws and regulations — they outline what you must do, but don’t provide guidance on how to do it, or don’t reflect technical or practical reality. For example, language in the Government Paperwork Elimination Act requires agencies or their representatives to submit to a months-long OMB approval process if they want to collect information from more than ten members of the public. So much for obtaining information on user needs from… actual users.

These regulations and others like them — well-intentioned but created without sufficient input from the people they impact — can make it difficult to achieve user experience goals.

And my point is?
Okay, all this seems to make sense — but so what? What’s the big deal with a few extra icons here and there or a feature story about the president? Why make a big stink about cookies? And why care when government web managers’ hands are virtually tied when it comes to these issues — after all they can’t say no to their bosses, right? These issues won’t disappear, right?

Well, right. But we’re no strangers to working around these types of problems. And we need to care because these issues have an impact on the user experience of citizens (hey, that includes all of us!) as I’ll outline below.

Impact on the user
Political influences can impact user experience in multiple ways. Some, such as information hierarchy problems, are significant. Others, such as link redirections, may be mere nuisances. But all impact users’ website experience.

  • Information hierarchy problems: Because these politically driven “features” are often emphasized, through design and positioning in a webpage layout, they often appear more important than other content on the site. This makes it more difficult for users visiting the site to accomplish a specific task unrelated to a political feature — if for no other reason than they must process additional information choices.

    Government sites frequently have confusing information hierarchies; in a heuristic usability study I led earlier this year, we found that two-thirds of sites suffered from this malady (e.g., it was difficult for an expert reviewer to discern importance or prioritization of content elements). Because of their inherently broad scope and diverse audience base, government sites already present information hierarchy challenges; political influences only exacerbate the problem.

  • Download delays: Server calls to download the referral link icons take time, as does the download of the images themselves as they render on the webpage (the images can total 15k+, depending on file format, image quality, and image dimensions). Add in gratuitous photos of the president, and dialup users may see a perceptible delay in page loading, which negatively impacts user experience.
  • Disclaimus interruptus: Offsite link redirections interrupt users’ navigation flow — they essentially have to perform an extra step to confirm their intent. This extra step does not enhance user task performance, and therefore, can negatively impact user experience.
  • Preference selection repetition: As a result of cookie prohibition, users lose their ability to set and retain preferences (ZIP code, text-only browsing, etc.) easily. Site managers lose the opportunity to more easily provide some types of navigation support, such as recent (prior session) page visits, and instead, resort to more complex user registration mechanisms to support simple tasks.
  • Extraneous accessibility navigation: Section 508 compliance requirements give rise to some quick fix solutions such as “skip navigation” links at the tops of pages and an increase in “text-only” versions. Text-only versions are often only partially implemented, requiring a user to toggle back and forth between views. These responses to accessibility requirements add extra links to already crowded layouts and often throw “text-only” users into a cycle of extra clicks to access content.

While many of these glitches seem minor, we all know that small problems collectively result in significant — if not always understood or even consciously perceived — downgrades in user experience.

Action items
It’s obvious that these political influences can negatively affect the user experience of a site. Given the political and organizational realities at federal government agencies, what can be done to address these issues? Whether you’re a government webmaster or a consultant to governments, you’ll find some remedies below.

Minimize
While you can’t avoid including referral icons and administration highlights, you can minimize their impact by:

  • Reducing the number of similar page components and simply eliminating “voluntary” referrals.
  • Reducing the size of icons and highlights sections and eliminating gratuitous signing ceremony graphics.
  • Limiting these items to the homepage.

Compartmentalize
Develop a “referral” layout that places all referral content in specific sections of the site. (A simple idea, but you’d be amazed at how many sites don’t do this.)

For example:

  • Place icons linking to other sites at the bottom of the layout and visually separate them from other layout elements.
  • Treat administration highlights as you would any other news item, both in terms of content (link, descriptive text) and location on the page — they will blend into the information hierarchy and reduce confusion.
  • Set up a disclaimer section at the bottom of the homepage containing the same text as offsite redirection pages, and then begin to eliminate the redirections (note: clear with legal first!).

Optimize
Improve the overall user experience of the site to minimize the impact of politically-driven features and eliminate the need for accessibility workarounds:

  • Redesign the homepage to improve the information hierarchy.
  • Develop and enforce (through content management systems, server-side includes, and/or policies) consistent visual identity and navigational elements that make it obvious to users that they have exited your site.
  • Use session cookies instead of persistent cookies, where applicable, to track ZIP codes, user-supplied preferences, and session navigation paths.
  • Address accessibility compliance as part of a complete page redesign to avoid “tacking on” compliance fixes that degrade user experience.

Standardize
Most federal sites are developed using a hodgepodge of authoring tools. They often contain a mix of proprietary tags and even FrontPage themes that can increase page sizes (and load times) and make it difficult to support a wide array of browser types, including assistive technologies like screen readers.

It will require some time and effort, but moving toward a standards-based site (HTML 4.01, XHTML, CSS) that degrades gracefully will help deliver a much better user experience, in addition to making the site more efficient and easier to manage. Use of standards-compliant code could be made mandatory for all new content, and older content could be retrofitted as it is updated.

Conclusion
The politics of user experience represent a small subset of the many challenges faced by web managers in designing, producing, and managing a federal government site. Inadequate funding, small staffs, far-reaching legislation, and directives from on high all conspire to test the mettle (and sanity) of even the most experienced federal web managers.

But I firmly believe that we need to push ahead on these incremental improvements since it can be very difficult to effect large-scale change. Incremental improvements, over time, can add up to major improvements in user experience of government sites. And that benefits all of us.
Steve “Fleck” Fleckenstein is an independent consultant focused on strategy and user experience consulting for government and non-profit clients. A webhead since 1994, he’s managed site strategy and development projects for tech startups, non-profits, a large telecom firm, and government agencies. He lives just outside Washington D.C. with his wife and two young boys. Reach him at .

Posted in Design Principles, Methods | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • Mike Blake

    October 22, 2002 at 1:05 pm

    Great article. I find we (federal webmasters) often spend more of our time to ensure that our contractor web development support staff are conversant on the 508 and federal web guidelines (for which the information is spread over multiple agency web sites by the way). We should be concentrating totally on defining how we can better organize and map our information to meet our intended audience needs. I believe that this is intention of the e-gov intiatives intially established. But, these are the times we live in and politics often drive the ship.

  • thom haller

    October 27, 2002 at 2:54 pm

    Hi Steve.
    Good to read your thoughts. You offer good material for IA students (especially those in DC). I appreciate your input.
    Thom Haller

  • Chris

    October 29, 2002 at 5:05 pm

    Having done web development for “contracting” companies in the DC metro area for the past six years I appreciate the article as well.

    In my view federal agency politics can even influence fundamental approaches such as whether or not to put stats in a sortable database rather than using a static page mimicking the printed medium. (A client was opposed to the database approach b/c users would be able to sort the data and discover which states ranked poorly compared to others and the agency spin would have been de- emphasized.)

    Then there are the clients who mistype URLs when writing colleagues who then send caustic messages to the contractor because they think the site is down, etc.

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