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After School

So here’s the picture. Charlotte, aged eight returns home from a hard day at school. When she’s finished her homework and eaten her dinner, she and her mother settle down to a family evening, testing government websites for usability and political correctness.

If you think I’m joking then read on. According to the e-Envoy’s 'Quality Framework for UK Government Website Design', Government web managers needing users to make their websites citizen-friendly should consider recruiting public sector staff or their families as a "cheap alternative" to usability consultancies.

Government has two concerns, leaving aside the Hutton Inquiry and the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Not enough people are using government websites and if like me, last weekend, you were trying to work out how to pay your National Insurance and PAYE over the Web, then it’s not exactly the most user-friendly and intuitive experience available on the Internet today.

The good news is that the new framework, stresses the "crucial" role of user feedback and the need for testing, at various stages, by groups of end-users who are representative of the website's target audiences. It gives the 'optimal' size of a testing group for one target audience as six to eight people acknowledges that the budgets allocated to government websites vary greatly and suggests that students, public sector personnel or family members of staff could be used to "approximate target audiences".

What worries me a little about the suggestion is that eGovernment is, in theory, supposed to shrink the size of the public-sector workforce, directly or indirectly but any Guardian reader will know that its getting larger every week, until it reaches the point where everyone who isn’t working for IBM, Capita or EDS is working for the civil service, including Charlotte, aged 8.

Shouldn’t Web sites be usable and friendly from day one or has any sense of quality “What is good and what is not good and how do we know these things” to quote Socrates, flown out of the window. Perhaps it’s a ‘King’s new clothes’ phenomenon, where everyone involved, approves a website which is demonstrably awful, a kind of collective insanity which isn’t confined to the public sector.

It strikes me that taxpayer’s money is being spent on guidelines that attempt to describe the perfect government experience but it’s only a that, a Website and not “A catalyst to embark on a learning journey of trial and error application”.

So instead of recruiting families to assist in usability testing let’s start worrying less about guidelines and more about accessibility and what this really means, in first making government websites attractive and useful enough to encourage people to use them and secondly for government departments to grasp that delivering a website isn’t the end of the process, it’s the beginning of another much more difficult one.


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