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Dec 2005 Contents

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World Usability in Washington, D.C.

by David Dick and Lisa Battle

David Dick is a member of the Washington D.C. Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. Lisa Battle is vice president of the Washington D.C. Chapter of UPA.

In honor of World Usability Day (November 3, 2005), the Washington D.C. Chapter of the Usability Professionals' Association (UPA) presented a panel discussion entitled "e-Gov Success Stories from the Nationís Capital." The focus of discussion was the progress to improve usability of products and services within the U.S. federal government.

Panelists included:

  • Adam Ambrogi, Special Assistant to the Commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission
  • Nicole Burton, Usability Analyst at the Financial Management Service, U.S. Treasury Department
  • Sheila Campbell, Senior Content manager for
  • Cari Wolfson, President of Focus on U!
  • Elizabeth Murphy, Manager of the Human Factors and Usability Group at the U.S. Census Bureau
  • Charles Sheppard, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • Whitney Quesenbery, President of the Usability Professionals' Association
  • Sean Wheeler, Lead Usability Specialist for the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA).

Speaker Sean Wheeler (U.S. Social Security Administration) addresses the audience.
Speaker Sean Wheeler (U.S. Social Security Administration) addresses the audience.

Adam Ambrogi discussed the problems of voting that result from poorly designed voting systems. Ambrogi explained that usability of voting machines affects the ability to train staff at polling stations to use them, and the ability to quickly educate the public on how to use them (within five minutes). Poor usability of voting forms resulted in the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which is intended to improve the entire voting process, including voting machines, voter registration, and poll worker training. He emphasized that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission takes usability seriously and thatís why it consulted the UPA for advice on how to simplify the design of voting systems.

Nicole Burton delivered a compelling presentation on strategies for successfully selling usability, based on her experiences within the Treasury Department. She described the importance of cultivating "champions" for usability among customers from business areas who already understand the need for ease of use and reduced training costs. She also talked about successes with simple usability techniques such as personas, scenarios, low-fidelity prototyping, and usability testing in current projects involving automation of paper-based systems. Burton also emphasized the value of metrics in persuading decision-makers to adopt usability recommendations.

Sheila Campbell discussed the redesign of the Search capability for FirstGov to help users find information about federal, state and local services. She presented results of usability tests that showed problems with the Search box on the home page and the display of search results. Cari Wolfson, who consulted with FirstGov during the redesign, described design changes made based on the usability test findings, including more space for the search box on the home page, longer line lengths on the results page to get more results "above the fold," larger result titles, and better alignment of search results. Campbell said that tests after the redesign showed that the users' success rate increased and users were able to find relevant results almost 50% faster.

Elizabeth Murphy discussed efforts to improve usability of both paper and online forms used for data collection at the Census Bureau. She demonstrated enhancements made to online census forms as a result of prototype usability testing and accessibility evaluation. Murphy also described enhancements to the Census Bureau's web site made as a result of usability testing, with the goal of improving dissemination of data to the public. She discussed how usability has become part of the culture.

Sean Wheeler presented successes in institutionalizing usability within the Social Security Administration. Wheeler described ongoing efforts to educate staff about usability and set standards for usable and accessible design. Under his direction, the Social Security Administration has implemented a series of seven courses in user-centered design, which are now taught biweekly within the agency: 96 certificates have been issued to people who have completed the series. He also touched on the value of extending user-centered design practices to influence strategic planning for new products and services.

Charles Sheppard described the role of NIST in developing standards and tools to promote usability.

Whitney Quesenbery discussed how UPA became involved with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to evaluate design of voting systems. She closed with a summary of World Usability Day seminars and workshops being held throughout the day in 35 countries.

Audience members participate in a panel discussion.
Audience members participate in a panel discussion.

The Washington, DC World Usability Day event began with an opening reception and poster session featuring posters on usability successes in several web site redesigns, online forms, voting systems, and open source software. Posters included:

  • Usability and Accessibility Design Enhancements to the National Library of Medicineís Local Legends/Women Physicians Web Site by Dick Horst, Nika Smith, and Cory Lebson, UserWorks, Inc. and Renate Roske-Shelton, Quotient, Inc.
  • MedlinePlus by Melanie Huston, National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Library of Medicine (NLM)
  • Usability of Voting by Bill Killam, User-Centered Design, Inc.
  • The KDE Usability Project: Open Usability for an Open Community by Celeste Paul, KDE Usability Project
  • Usability Improvements to the Process of Applying for Financial Aid for College by Andrew Schall and Dick Horst, UserWorks, Inc.
  • Design of a Web-based Diseases and Conditions Index for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute by Claude Steinberg and Dick Horst, UserWorks, Inc.

Attendees talk with poster presenters during the opening reception.
Attendees talk with poster presenters during the opening reception.

Registration closed the evening before the event, with 130 attendees pre-registered. Co-hosted by the Washington D.C. Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication, this event attracted usability specialists, technical writers, and others who were interested in the subject of usability in government. One member of the audience summarized this event in one word ó impressive.

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