User-Centered Design for Large Government Portals

User-Centered Design for Large Government Portals

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By Christopher Rusay

Published on January 16, 2003

Web site design for a large federal or state government organization can be chaotic and unpredictable. It is not unusual for a large federal agency to have anywhere from one hundred thousand to one million pages of content found under a multitude of sites. Given the complicated bureaucratic landscape, this article suggests standard approaches for the user-experience designer or information architect of large government informational Web sites. The article begins with a practical overview of challenges associated with government Web site design. Specific examples are provided for content description, information architecture, and interface design. Additional considerations like content management, accessibility, and section 508 are also discussed. Although written from a consultant’s perspective, this article is equally relevant to internal government employees working on Web initiatives.

Organizational Challenges

The divisional structure of a large state or federal government introduces complex challenges. Government project managers are typically IT directors reporting to CIOs, marketing/PR managers, or a combination of both. The internal project team should contain representatives from all government agencies involved (which could be many). During a re-design for the State of Minnesota, the checkered landscape consisted of about forty departmental agencies, not including the Judicial Branch, other state Boards and Commissions, or local city and county divisions. Each department separately designs and maintains its sites, which explains why they have separate visual looks, information architectures, and metadata classifications.

Divisional inconsistencies affect many aspects throughout the length of projects. One unfortunate consequence is the lack of consistent user research and usability testing information. Government project managers usually provide traffic reports, user research, and usability results but these are often spotty and outdated. Plan on allocating appropriate time and resources to research a large user base.

While determining the scope of content migration, decide early on which agency content will be migrated into the new content repository and portal infrastructure. Be specific and note the difference between content that lives in the new site and content that exists as “links” to external government sites. These are only a few of the organizational challenges of government work. For more information on the internal politics of government projects see Steve Fleckenstien’s article, “The Politics of User Experience”.[1]

Systemic Design

The core challenge for the information architect is to provide a systemic design solution. A scalable design system provides a framework for agencies and content to migrate to the portal over time. Elements of the design system should include:

  1. Information architecture framework: Define underlying metadata structure, classification systems, or other topic/event-based taxonomies, and, if necessary, assist in developing a common controlled vocabulary
  2. Interface specifications and guidelines: Includes GUI, visual design, navigation and information design specifications
  3. Integrated search, help, and browsable indexes
  4. Ongoing content management plan: Content indexing will be an ongoing process and require reorganized or dedicated government personnel and a detailed content management plan

Ultimately, the design system must balance the needs of citizens with government goals and objectives.

What Do Users Need?

Citizens expect to find public information and services online. They’d like to renew drivers’ licenses, file their taxes, and make their lives easier. Citizens generally do not understand the bureaucratic and organizational landscape. When looking for a permit to cut down a tree in front of his or her property, a citizen may have no idea which government agency would handle such a permit. Many government sites are difficult to use, preventing users from finding information and services because they follow their own internal structure and language instead of speaking the language of citizens.

Theresa A. Pardo, project director of the Albany, New York-based Center for Technology in Government, says, “The more of us who understand that digital government isn’t about building a Web site, that it’s not about technologies, that it is about transforming government service delivery through the use of the technology, the better off we’ll all be.” The government’s focus, she says, should be the business of government and using technology in a way that will transform its fundamental relationship with the public. With that in mind, governments should thoroughly assess the needs of their users and consider government business objectives–like lowering costs–and develop plans documenting how services (online and offline) can be enhanced on Web sites to create more positive experiences for citizens.

This plan must consider the Bradford distribution (related to Pareto’s principle in economics) where information retrieval requests rarely follow common statistical patterns but instead adhere to the 80-20 rule. In this typical scenario, a small number of queries are generated by a large number of audience members. This means that roughly 20 percent of content will satisfy 80 percent of the audience. Information retrieval specialist Marcia Bates suggests, “This [Bradford] distribution is extremely robust, and virtually impossible to defeat. Systems have to be designed to work with the Bradford Distribution, rather than trying to fight it.”[2] Expert information architect Louis Rosenfeld also refers to Bradford and stresses the importance of hitting the “sweet spots,” or the content of most value to users. In other words, by focusing on the sweet spots you will satisfy the greatest number of users.

Content Analysis

A well-designed navigation or classification system for government’s sites should, like large corporate sites, begin by documenting the various ways of describing or locating content types on their sites. A detailed content audit for one hundred thousand pages could take months, so a general content survey across the core government agencies involved will often suffice. A high-level survey should reveal key content types and resources that users need to access, like news releases, alerts, faqs, forms, downloads, contact information, and transactional processes. Examining content with a user-centered approach is key. What are the ways of describing content that have a distinct meaning to the users? While keeping this question in mind, the information architect can describe common patterns found with content across government sites.

The bottom-up approach starts by detailing the metadata “facets” used to describe content items. During a project for a Canadian provincial government, information architect Alex Wright ( completed a facet “mapping” exercise, which established content relationships and provided a solid basis for metadata definition. Common “facets” identified at the State of Minnesota and other e-government initiatives have been:

  • Audience: Children, Students, Teachers, Lawyers, Businesses, Voters, Health Care workers, Architects…
  • Department: Department of Health, Department of Transportation, Department of Finance…
  • Life Events: Having a Baby, Buying a Home, Getting Married, Getting Divorced, Paying Taxes…
  • Forms: Tax Forms, Planning commission, Small Business…
  • Topic: (Hierarchy: Topic > Sub-topic) Business, Travel, Health, Environment, Government, Education…
  • Content Type: News Releases, Features, Transactional, FAQs…
  • Location: (Hierarchy: State > County > City)

The facets are useful for creating more flexible navigation schemes. While, a navigational tree structure limits content to one location within the hierarchy, faceted navigation allows content to live dynamically within the system and to be accessed from a number of different perspectives. For example a single content item accessible by multiple facets:



Topic: Health Care > Vaccinations

Department: Department of Health

Location: California > Alameda County > Oakland

Many Web sites organize content from the top down within a hierarchy or tree structure. Large informational sites must take another approach and start with describing the bottom end-node (content item). Ultimately, with large government sites it is difficult to develop entirely faceted navigation, but a combination of hierarchical and faceted classification is possible and can provide a user-friendly structure for finding information.

Search and Help

An integrated search and help component is crucial to a large informational Web site. It is surprising how many Web projects neglect the search interface and install search components (software) directly “out-of-the-box.” Typical implementations present lists of search results sorted by relevance. For improved experiences, designers and project teams must consider tailoring search results to their audiences. A few options to improve search for government sites include:

  • Segmenting results sets:
    Present results as sets of digestible chunks, like Top Text results, Top Image results, Top Help/FAQs, and Most Popular searches.
  • Show categorical relationships:
    For user orientation, indicate the relationship of individual search results with the navigation scheme of the web site. For example, Business > Commerce > Forms
  • Departmental affiliation:
    Governments will continue to be divisional creatures. Indicate departmental ownership of services and information even if users have navigated by non-divisional means.

Integrated search results and indexes–by topic, division, or alphabetically–give users options for quick access to services and information. These and other utility features should be anchored within a navigation header always accessible to users.

The Services and Application Layer

The interface is often overlooked for government Web site design because of the focus on informational needs. However, interface design becomes an important factor when designing the functional services layer of government sites. Many users of government sites are not only coming for “information” but to access a set of distinct online transactional services. A consistent and well-designed interface system not only presents a positive outward appearance, but also provides orientation and makes information more accessible.

Services and applications have distinct task flows and complicated interfaces with security, authentication, and registration processes. First, decide which (if any) core applications will be integrated or migrated to your new portal platform. For applications that will remain in an external environment (outside of the main government portal) decide whether these applications should adopt the new user-experience design. Finally, develop user scenarios and detailed task analysis for complex applications.

Adopting user-experience guidelines is not a simple task for external applications. Many security, payment, and procurement applications are managed and maintained by separate government divisions, and are often on different development platforms, some built in ASP, BEA, ColdFusion, or PHP. When duplicating user-experience guidelines on external platforms, it can be challenging to manage redundant CSS files, templates, graphics, and includes for a number of different Web platforms.

As citizens expect more from their government sites, it will become less acceptable for them to maintain multiple user IDs and payment information at each separate government division. People will soon demand smarter systems that recognize them and allow maintenance of one set of personal information across all touch-points, whether in government or private sector sites.

Content Management and Indexing

One of the most time-consuming challenges is indexing and migrating content to a new platform. Develop a project plan to identify milestones and key resources dedicated to this phase. The goal of a solid content management platform is to allow government librarians and project managers to continue content migration and creation long after the consultants have left. Marcia Bates, a professor of Information Studies at UCLA, stresses the importance of indexing support systems: “Think of the indexing support system as a separate information system, with its own requirements and users. What the indexers need in order to find their way around your system of indexing vocabulary or categories is different from what the system end users need to find their way efficiently around a body of information. Often it is the indexing support software that makes indexers inefficient, not the people themselves.”

Content analysis performed early in the project life cycle should have defined metadata “facets” like audience, department, forms, topic, content type, location, and event. These “bottom-up” descriptions of content provide the basis for indexing content across multiple government agencies. The addition of a controlled vocabulary increases the effectiveness of any indexing system by suggesting equivalent, broader or narrower terms, which can be used to provide suggestions and alternatives to indexers. It is also important to produce a broad set of metadata elements across organizational boundaries to ensure separation of content from presentation.

Unfortunately, much existing content on government sites is hard-coded directly into the presentation layer (HTML) and pulling that content into a repository can be messy. A variety of screen-scraping utilities can help rip content out of HTML and into an indexed repository. This can be time consuming and warrants planning ahead.

Section 508

For federal Web sites, most designers are required by law to build a site that satisfies section 508 accessibility guidelines. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. 794d), requires agencies developing federal Web sites to make technology accessible to people with disabilities. The section 508 Web site offers this description: “Many of these provisions ensure access for people with vision impairments who rely on various assistive products to access computer-based information, such as screen readers, which translate what’s on a computer screen into automated audible output, and refreshable Braille displays. The standards do not prohibit the use of Web site graphics or animation. Instead, the standards aim to ensure that such information is also available in an accessible format.”[3]

While not bound to the federal laws of section 508, state and provincial governments often require meeting level-A (Priority 1) checkpoints or higher as specified by the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative. Accessible design is occasionally equated with bad design, but provisions for accessibility and section 508 make good design sense. Many private sector Web sites choose standards-compliant design simply because it makes good business sense.


User-experience designers and information architects should gear up for government projects with portal products and CMS systems. As with large corporate sites and portals, government Web sites require robust information architecture from the bottom (metadata) – up (navigational hierarchy). An extensible metadata structure ensures the longevity of government content, and formats like XML allow for the separation of content from the presentation layer, altogether providing more flexibility over both your content and your front-end design. Large government Web sites present a huge challenge to the information architect or user-centered design lead. This article provides a starting point for the most substantial issues encountered. Armed with appropriate experience, methodology, and planning, government project teams can sufficiently meet the challenge.


[1] Steve Fleckenstien, The Politics of User Experience, Boxes and Arrows, October 21, 2002
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[2] Marcia J. Bates, After the Dot-Bomb: Getting Web Information Retrieval Right This Time, First Monday, volume 7, number 7 (July 2002)
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[3] Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications (1194.22)
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Resources and information:

Dougherty, Dale, Building a Better Bureacracy, New Architect (Web Techniques), Mar 2001

Peter Morville, Bottoms Up – Designing complex, adaptive systems, New Architect, December 2002

Lou Rosenfeld’s reference to Pareto’s Principle Sep 11, 2002: 80/20 Again–Critical Architectural Junctures

Rebecca Fairley Raney, Getting Information From State Web Sites at a Price, New York Times, September 16, 2002

Section 508 Guidelines

W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines

Related Topics: User-Centered Design (UCD), Web Design

Christopher Rusay is is a Senior User Experience Consultant at Roundarch in San Francisco. Prior to that he was at USWeb/CKS and MarchFirst.