Building eGovernment Websites


How Can I Make Sure My Design Works?


The presentation elements of your website should always be treated separately from its structural elements (see: What Does Designing A Website Mean? ): this means that you should always be in the position to put across the information contained in your website in a coherent and consistent structure, independently from the way it actually looks on screen (or on paper, if users print pages off the site).  It also means being able to provide contents in a variety of formats, alternative to each other, and generally relying heavily on the use of plain text to convey contents.  For instance, it would be ideal if users could, using a variety of technical solutions, actually strip off all the colour settings, pictures, and animation from your site and see the information in black and white, and still be able to understand what it says, and how it is structured.

In general, when it comes to presentation flexibility is key : a website should be designed so that it is accessible through the widest possible variety of technical platforms, i.e. it should be compatible with the sometimes very different set-ups users may be adopting to navigate the web.  The contents and structure of a site should be evident on all platforms.  And this is only achievable by adopting a user-oriented approach in terms of presentation.

When addressing presentation issues, you may therefore find it helpful to concentrate on two aspects: the users' technical profile , and their ability to deal with complex, structured contents, i.e. their cognitive profile .

Technical Profile

In developing countries, access to recent, state-of-the-art web technology is not very common, and it is often limited to certain elites (which may include governmental officers and/or e-government practitioners like you).  This not only applies to software and hardware, but - as you probably know very well - also to the speed and quality of internet connections, which may be quite limited, and often unreliable.

If your aim is to design a website that caters for the communication needs of members of the public or local institutions and firms in your country, or in other developing countries, you need to keep these limitations in mind, and make sure that your site is compatible with the technology in use in these contexts, and with the state of internet connections among the public you intend to communicate with.

Designing a website that relies very heavily on graphics, for instance (e.g. using pictures as buttons, or more generally to communicate contents), may not be a very good idea, as on slow connections these may take a while to download, causing unnecessary waiting time for users.  As the price of internet connections in developing countries tends to be quite high in comparison to the average financial means available to the public, it would also have the negative effect of burdening users with unnecessary expenses to access contents that they may obtain in less expensive ways through traditional methods, therefore discouraging them from using your site.

Dealing with large files also generates heavy demands on computer equipment: a computer with limited memory and disk space will take longer to open and display large files, or may even be unable to manage them, and eventually stop working altogether.  As this is perhaps the most frustrating experience for a computer user, you should do your best to avoid it, by keeping the size of files to a minimum.

This applies not only to the use of images, but also to other types of files, like Acrobat PDF files (very good printing quality, but at a price, as PDF files tend to be larger than other text formats), Flash files (often used for graphic animation, navigation menus, etc.), and audio or video files.  If possible, you should try to keep the use of such formats limited to the essential, and even in these cases, always try to provide alternative ways of accessing contents (e.g. text-only files, or very simple HTML pages, like the one you are reading).

Note that keeping file size to a minimum will also help you and your organisation deliver an efficient and cost-effective website.  This is because the same limitations in memory, disk space and connection speed (also known as bandwidth ) may apply at your end of the network.  Websites are delivered through servers , i.e. computers permanently connected to the internet that serve (i.e. send) contents to visitors of the site (see: How Does A Website Work? ).  A server needs to be able to deal with a high number of requests for pages, from multiple users at the same time: if the files it needs to serve are very large, and its connection to the internet is slow, the server will take long to respond, therefore adding to the delay in the delivery of contents to the user.  Like any computer, a server under a lot of pressure may also stop working altogether (also known as a crash), rendering your site inaccessible and therefore unusable.  For this reason, you should always make sure the server technology you use is good enough to perform the tasks you want it to perform as quickly and stably as possible.  But server technology is expensive: keeping file size to a minimum will help you keep this expense under control, and deliver a fast, stable, "always on" website.

Finally, you should also consider that a certain number of visitors to your site may be people who experience specific difficulties in using common computer technology, and may be using alternative technical solutions designed to assist them.  This is especially the case with disabled users: the blind , for instance, cannot read content off a screen, and need to use software that renders the content of web pages in audio format, which they can listen to (usually known as screen reading software ); or people with motility problems may have difficulties using a mouse to point and click, and prefer using a keyboard to follow links and move from one document to another, or within parts of the same document.  And people with low vision (including the elderly) may need to be able to see the site in very large fonts so that they can read its contents.

Your site should be designed so that it also caters for the needs of this type of user: this is possible by using particular features of HTML (the language used to programme web pages) in combination with style sheets and by relying on simple text as the primary way to convey information, as this can be handled quite easily by most types of software.

If you think addressing the needs of disabled users is not very important because they are a small minority, then think again: not only it is unethical for a governmental organisation to discriminate against a part of the population, but disabled people are also the people who are more likely to use websites, as they may have difficulties in physically going to offices, using a telephone, or reading paper documents.  If used appropriately, the internet represents an excellent communication alternative for them, and it would be a pity not to fully take advantage of its features.

More information on this, and a list of excellent resources for accessible web design , can be found on the website of the Web Accessibility Initiative , sustained by the World Wide Web Consortium , a non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of the web.  You are encouraged never to start designing a website without consulting this resource, or without asking your team of designers to do so.

And remember to always print some pages off your site to see what they look like.  This is something users do very often, and you should make sure that the content is all there and nothing is chopped off or invisible: by using style sheets it is also possible to design the site so that specific elements of the page are handled differently when printed (e.g. larger or smaller fonts, or the elimination of the navigation bar, which occupies precious space on a printed page).

Cognitive Profile

This refers to an individual's ability to deal with written information of variable complexity, and with his/her level of IT and web literacy.

eGovernment websites, especially if they are designed to address the general public, need to cater for the communication needs of different categories of users, who may have varying levels of familiarity with information technology and the web, and varying levels of literacy and education.

When designing the presentation elements of your site, you should keep this in mind, and design the site so that it is easy for anybody to use, or at least for a large majority of users.  What follows are some elements you may want to consider when designing the interface of your site:

Page Author: Andrea Bardelli Danieli. Last updated on 19 October, 2008.
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