Considering a website redesign? Why not do it in public?

The rebirth of ADA.gov offers a real-time glimpse into how language and modern interface constructs can transform a visitor’s experience

A building under construction is a work in progress for all to see. Such is rarely the case with corporate websites.

Frequently conceived in back rooms and constructed by teams of design and marketing professionals, business websites are typically built less for target visitors than for executives at the companies that run them.

They’re the best guess at what target visitors need based on the opinions of people who haven’t met many of them.

In rebuilding the Americans with Disabilities Act website administered by the U. S. Department of Justice, the Nava Public Benefit Corp. is making the process transparent.

Its approach enables anyone interested to juxtapose the old with the new, see the thinking behind the redesign, and contribute their feedback.

It’s a tactic more businesses should use.

Out with the old

The ADA.gov site is the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division’s most accessed website, with about 3.5 million annual visitors and 8 million page views. Launched in 1999, it has only been redesigned once, and it shows.

Strung across a multicolumn grid that’s positively hostile to mobile devices and crammed into a space optimized for a 640X480 screen, ADA.gov’s format is only one of its problems.

The content and navigation elements appear to be aimed at compliance officers and litigators. That’s because they are. 

The new ADA.gov site, which is still in beta test, targets people with disabilities rather than bureaucrats. The homepage states clearly at the top what the ADA is and who the site is meant for.

Imagery is people, not documents.

In reimagining the site, Nava applied some of the lessons it learned from rescuing the government’s Healthcare.gov site from its disastrous 2013 launch and other projects it’s completed. One of them is redesigning the U.S. Department of Veteran Medical Centers portal, a project that reduced the amount of written content by 87%.

A key principle was to start with the target audience and work backward from there.

 

Simplify and humanize

The plain-talk style of the new site doesn’t mean the technical stuff has disappeared.

Instead, it’s been moved off the home page to a dedicated section that bureaucrats and lawyers can love.

On the current site, “technical assistance resources are organized, so you need years of experience to find what you’re looking for,” says Chinelo Ikejimba, a Nava senior designer/researcher. “Now everything is on one page, and visitors can use tags and filters to find what they want.”

Modern web constructs help with readability.

For example, on the frequently asked questions page about service animals, a JavaScript navigation menu follows users down the page and lets them jump to topics of their choice.

“Plus” and “minus” buttons expand and collapse content selectively to minimize scrolling and halve the page length compared to the corresponding information on the current site.

Responsive design constructs channel all content into a single column, and headline tags denote content to search engines.

Speak as people do

Look and feel is only part of the equation, however.

“When people come to a website like this, they’re not looking to be delighted,” says Chief Delivery Officer Jodi Leo. “We want to help them focus on the task at hand, and that means using plain language.”

For the ADA project, that meant writing to an eighth-grade reading level, which isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Many software products help optimize readability, and a good human editor helps with the tone, so the result is “empathetic but not intrusive, accessible without being condescending,” Ikejimba says.

There’s also a GSA site devoted to plain language launched by a group of federal employees.

Iconography helps. “Instead of a full paragraph on service animals, can we use icons and simplified language such as “a service animal can go here but not here,” she says.

The project has been helped along by proclamations such as the Biden Administration’s Executive Order and Transforming Federal Customer Experience and its mandate to “design and deliver services in a manner that all people of all abilities can navigate.”

Still, there are always skeptics who cling to the technical jargon they love.

Nava’s approach “is to try to involve them to get their buy-in earlier,” Leo says. “We share research on how people’s comprehension has improved. Once they see the difficulty people had using the old site, things become more collaborative.”

Test and test again

It gets down to testing and lots of it.

For the VA site redesign, Nava conducted over 75 moderated and 200 unmoderated sessions with people whose profiles matched the target personas of employees, advocates, and government employees.

They were asked to perform routine tasks like finding information about a topic or scheduling an appointment. And to talk through the process as they went. The process uses paraphrase testing to determine if readers perceive a message to be the one intended.

Other useful metrics include referring pages, visitor paths, and search engine queries.

Frequently searched for terms, for example, may merit a menu entry or page.

There’s also a tiny, clickable box at the bottom of each page that asks simply, “How can we improve this site?”

New feedback comes in from that source daily, totaling about 1,000 suggestions on the beta ADA.gov site alone.

Such contextual feedback, Ikejimba says, “is very effective because it helps us identify what the pain points are.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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