GSA contest offers free website usability test as prize

Thursday - 2/9/2012, 10:57am EST

Jonathan Rubin, new media manager, GSA.

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General Services Administration is promoting its contest on YouTube and other places to spread the word about the importance of usability testing.

"The contest is for people to make a video about why their government website deserves a free usability test and why it's special and why we should look at it," said Jonathan Rubin, the new media manager at GSA.

He joined The Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk about the contest and GSA's First Fridays usability programs.

According to Rubin, those entering the contest are generally from two camps. In the first are agencies that have learned through user feedback that their websites have usability problems. The second group hasn't had their websites tested yet but recognize that such testing would be a good thing to do.

"When we think of usability testing we think 'product testing,' said Rubin. "Basically, you have any product you create — a car, an iPad or a shoe — you want to make sure that it works correctly and it also serves your customers' needs. We do this sort of product testing on government websites."


GSA prepared this video to promote its First Fridays usability contest

Rubin's team assesses a website's users and what they're looking to accomplish on the website. Last year, they evaluated 24 government websites, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's site.

"The site had been written by scientists, and they were using terms that scientists use, such as 'climate,'" Rubin said. "But the users, when we think about weather, we think of the word 'weather.' So, when people were looking for local weather patterns in their area, all they saw was the word 'climate' and they were getting confused."

After identifying the problem through its usability study, the GSA notified the NOAA staff who then updated the website. Testing after the change showed that users found the site much easier to use.

"Plain language is a big part of what we do, although it's not the only thing that we do," Rubin said. "We also work with design elements and information architecture. When you're thinking about the users all the time, you constantly need to get outside of the government bubble, get out of jargon/government speak and make it as plain and simple as possible."

Even though the prize for the contest is a free website usability test, GSA does not charge for testing agency websites.

"If you were to actually pay for our services commercially, for the preparation and the creation of tasks and all the staff time and the technical equipment that we use, the price-tag is about $17,000," Rubins said.

Any agency can request an assessment though there is currently a six-month waiting list.

"The contest allows you to get a slot into our schedule," Rubin said. "We'll take a look at your site and get you some feedback right away."

The First Fridays usability contest runs through the end of February.

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