Dec 31 2009

Under the Hood

Photo: Forrest MacCormack
Ron Oberbillig, chief operating officer for the Federal Consulting Group

Imagine browsing your agency's Web site, and inadvertently linking to a pornography site, or logging on with a simple query and being subjected to a five-minute wait while a graphics-heavy page loads.

"Clearly, in government, we don't want those things to happen," says Ron Oberbillig, chief operating officer for the Federal Consulting Group, a fee-for-service agency within the Treasury Department that provides its federal customers with tools, techniques and best practices to improve service.

Yet those very scenarios have played out on some federal sites, prompting FCG to find applications that can help agencies effectively monitor and manage their sites and, in turn, increase overall customer satisfaction.

As a result, Big Brother plans to watch, well, itself—or rather its 20,000-plus Web sites. By embracing architectural mapping as a best practice for improving online services, Oberbillig says his agency has achieved "marvelous early results" during prototype use.

Oberbillig's team tested the tool on the FirstGov portal. Pleased with the results, FCG will roll out its architectural mapping program over the next year to approximately 100 of the government's most heavily visited Web sites.

Though used extensively in the private sector, architectural mapping is fairly new to the government. The Web site management tool uses a spider-type approach to rove about a site and give a systems administrator a detailed breakdown of the site's complete structure.

"Architectural mapping is a very objective tool that identifies all kinds of defects and problem areas," Oberbillig says. "It's critically important to get these insights, to improve site quality and customer satisfaction."

Total View

By integrating site content, navigation structure and traffic data in a unified view, the architectural mapping process creates a dynamic map based on scans and analyses of every page and object on a site or group of sites.

A sysadmin can then visualize the relationships among the objects. Most mapping programs let the sysadmin create comprehensive reports and draft changes onto maps that software developers can use as instructions for recoding the site.

The overriding goal of architectural mapping is to make sure a site is accessible and practical for its visitors, Oberbillig says.

Just Look on the Map to Find...
Redundant content
Pages that don't link back
to the home page
Embedded images
Linked documents
Broken links
Inappropriate content

And a user-friendly site begins with its overall architecture. "Good design is important because it will help visitors feel comfortable on your site, which translates into longer visits and the opportunity to provide them with services or products," notes Terry Morris, assistant professor of computer information systems at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill.

Morris, a Web development textbook author, says site developers must focus on seven areas: organization, navigation, page design and layout, text and graphic design, functionality, multimedia use and accessibility.

"Weaving all of these components together in a combination that appeals to your target audience and meets your clients' needs is the goal of Web design," she says.

Architectural mapping will help an agency keep a well-designed site tuned. It's the tool to use to check under the hood and ensure all the parts of the Web engine are functioning at peak performance.

"It's a very powerful tool to measure the overall effectiveness of a site," says Bev Godwin, the General Services Administration's director of FirstGov.

FirstGov provided FCG with a good lab for its test. As the official gateway to government information, the portal has links to more than 10,000 sites and attracted more than 78 million visitors last year.

The mapping process red-flagged a host of potential improvement opportunities at FirstGov. It pinpointed pages slow to open because of large graphics, turned up broken links and even spotted some troubling hidden content.

The mapping identified pornographic content tucked in an official government site's metadata. The taboo content appears to have gained a link on the site after the agency let a URL registration lapse and another organization snatched up the address.

"It's difficult to continuously check out every page and every link when you have thousands of pages," Oberbillig acknowledges. "And yet these [examples] are embarrassing to a Web site and its agency, so there is a definite need to be continuously monitoring."

The mapping scans can alert sysadmins to a host of problems, such as potential privacy loopholes, data leaks, use of cookies and Web tracking beacons, and embedded but unwanted images or scripts.

What's Below

The tool also can help an agency evaluate a site's structural underpinning by highlighting pages with too much tiered or stacked information. Standard Web design uses the three-click rule—no user should have to click more than three times to find information.

But on federal sites, "people were sometimes having to click through six or eight levels to get to the information they were seeking," Oberbillig reports.

"We know that as the architecture of a Web site improves, citizen satisfaction improves. It's all about the government having credibility in the eyes of the public."
— FCG's Ron Oberbillig

Another finding from the scan is that agencies often don't use the optimum technology to build graphics and upload images. More than half the visitors who access federal sites use dial-up connections, so agencies ought to use the least data-dense images possible—otherwise page openings will be slow. Any time a page fails to open promptly, an agency is making users wait and customer satisfaction will take a hit, says GSA's Godwin.

"The software looks at every page weight and scans every single image," she points out, "which is very important to citizens because they expect things to come up quickly."

Godwin has used the mapping report to prioritize how the FirstGov team will respond to and fix problems. The approach works, she says and points to a follow-up scan that found GSA's reworking of the site's images had already made "an incredible difference."

Happy with the test results during the FCG test, Godwin says GSA will keep using architectural mapping. She plans to scan FirstGov every six months, as well as before and after data migrations and site redesigns.

Architectural mapping can also help fine-tune a site's search engine by rating search functionality and identifying potential deficiencies on how a search engine tags keywords.

Deploying a tool than can sniff around every corner of a Web site and provide a report on strengths and weaknesses is key to achieving customer satisfaction, according to Oberbillig, whose agency is the government's executive agent for the American Customer Satisfaction Index. ACSI is the national measure for customer satisfaction and the only independent measure of a consumer's experience with goods and services.

How well federal sites stack up on the index should be a driving factor in Web design, Oberbillig says, because online "sites are absolutely the right channel by which to deliver services in the most efficient manner possible."

But good service isn't the only factor. There's also cost.

For example, when a citizen can get an immediate response to a question by visiting a government Web site, "it may cost a nickel," he estimates. But if that same citizen were to write a letter posing the same question, "it would be a much longer response time, and it would be much more expensive, maybe costing $25."

Ultimately, government Web sites want to encourage certain behaviors by their visitors, such as repeat visits and recommending sites to other users. Architectural mapping helps agencies do that by finding easy ways to improve the online experience of visitors to their sites.

"We know that as the architecture of a Web site improves, citizen satisfaction improves," Oberbillig says. "It's all about the government having credibility in the eyes of the public."