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Back in September, Victoria Wray, one my colleagues here at Internal Affairs, posted about some of the research we've been doing, talking to other governments in several countries as we setup the project to redevelop newzealand.govt.nz. This is a post about the next part of the story—talking with real users about what they want.

No small task

The scope of newzealand.govt.nz is very broad. The challenge ahead of us, to transform the site and make it more user-centred, is no small task. Meeting the needs of users and delivering what they want is at the core of what we're hoping to achieve. To get there, we're going to need to iterate, get feedback, try new things, and change the way we think about publishing government information.

Where to start?

We could just start building something, and eventually show it to users. No doubt we'd learn a few things, but we'd probably get a lot of things wrong—and we probably wouldn't meet the needs of New Zealanders looking for government information.

Even though prototyping will be one of the techniques we will use, we decided to do a little fact-finding and get a better understanding of the issues users face, and to collect some insights about how Kiwis think about government information.

Getting to know our users

We worked with Optimal Usability and devised a research plan covering three broad objectives.

Table 1: Research plan

Objective How we'd go about the research
Get a better understanding of experiences and expectations Run a series of focus groups, covering different geographic areas and a broad demographic profile
Start to understand how Kiwis organise their information-seeking tasks, and see how they move through an information space Run a series of card sort tests, then develop and test an initial information architecture with representative content from across the government information domain
Identify the main design patterns and user interface features that will help Kiwis find the information they're looking for more easily Face-to-face facilitated testing, users interaction with prototype wireframes, the current newzealand.govt.nz site and a variety of overseas sites for comparison

The research findings

Last week I presented to members of the NZ Government Web Community (GWC) as part of an information session marking World Usability Day. At that time I promised to share the key findings of the research.

Here are the research reports:

  1. Customer experience report (PDF 730KB) (Word 3.3MB)
  2. Information architecture report (PDF 382KB) (Word 771KB)
  3. Design and user testing report (PDF 2.5MB) (Word 8.6MB)

I'm pleased to say we learned a lot. The testing reaffirmed many things we already knew, it threw us a few curve balls, dropped in the odd surprise, and even left a few of us scratching our heads.

Here are a few of the key observations I took away from the research.

  • Users are comfortable with navigating through multiple sites or hubs, but an easy way to get back to the newzealand.govt.nz homepage is needed
  • Users need easy access to contact information that includes multiple channels (where available)
  • Google search is the starting point for nearly every task a user undertakes when looking for government information, but the quality of search results for government content is poor—fragmented, duplicated and poorly written content blocks users from completing tasks
  • The visual design of many government websites is too complex
  • Users need to get content that's more personalised to their own circumstances

Are we delivering what people want?

Well in a word, NO. We asked our focus group participants not just what they thought of newzealand.govt.nz, but what their experience was like using government websites in general. Here are their top five gripes.

Table 2: Top 5 user complaints about government websites

Issue How we're planning on fixing this
Can't find information Create a site that Google loves, get users to the right starting points, give them enough context to know they are doing the right thing.
Your site is broken Broken links, broken tools. Really people, there's just no excuse for this. Yes, I'm looking at you. When did you last run a check on your site for broken links?
Processes are too complex We're not going to be able to completely transform all of the government's online services. We will, however, make the new govt.nz site simple and intuitive to use.
Contact details are hard to find We're going to put in extra effort here to make sure that people can find contact information easily, and we will make sure we include details of all the channels they can use, not just email addresses.
Questions and feedback not answered We're going to make it easier for users to tell us about problems, and also encourage them to tell us when we're doing something right. We're also prepared to nag agencies until our users get their questions answered.

The challenge ahead

After all the testing was finished I had a much clearer sense of the challenge ahead. We're getting better at delivering what users want, but the expectations users have are changing rapidly. Popular NZ websites like trademe.co.nz and overseas sites like gov.uk and bbc.co.uk are setting the benchmark.

  • People know Google exists. They don't how to use Google Search effectively.
  • The breadth and depth of the information architecture is rather large. We want to create a site that helps users find information they are looking for first-time, every-time. Hey! Who said we're not ambitious! Ok, so every time is probably not realistic, how about 80% of the time?
  • Setting up the new site, sourcing content, testing and iterating until we get it right is going to take time, collaboration and a new way of working not just here at Internal Affairs but in other agencies too.

So, what do you want?

Take a look at the research. What are your thoughts? Is there something you'd like to see us do more research on? Maybe you've got some research you'd be willing to share too?

Our project is just getting started. You'll be hearing more from us regularly. In the meantime, you're welcome to join the conversation and share your thoughts below.

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