by Ed Swires-Hennessy, Local Government Data Unit - Wales
Ed continues his appraisals of different national web sites to stimulate use of the Internet, share best practice and encourage debate.
It is some time since I looked at any of the major sites of the US government: with my interest in population being stirred through a discussion last week, I put the two together and decided to visit the US Bureau of the Census (http://www.census.gov/). The home page is a delight! It fits on one screen but does have four types of navigation (underlined text, plain white text on blue (with an underline for a roll-over on some and a colour reverse on others), graphic links and the use of drop down menus.
The text clarity on the home page was not followed throughout the site: some pages used Times New Roman and, for the news page, much of the information was in capitals – which is much harder to read. Generally navigation was clear throughout the site: use of the ‘back’ button when in the Catalog just returned to the Catalog page; fortunately the ‘US Census Bureau’ graphic at the top of the page was effective to get back to the home page. Some of the site has been developed with a fixed text size – which then does not enlarge for those with visual difficulties. Tool tips are, however, used for the graphics.
The information about the site is on the main left-hand navigation whilst the central part of the home page provides access to the vast holdings of data. Note here the major links with some important categories to the right. One golden rule of communication has been broken here – the use of acronyms: EEO, TIGER, NAICS to name the obvious ones on the home page. For the first acronym, appearing in the phrase ‘Census 2000 EEO tabulations’, a more suitable title would be ‘Equal Employment Opportunity tables’ as this sub-heading already appears against the main ‘Census 2000’ heading.
Following the main headings, like Census 2000, produces vast lists of sub-items. Some of the lists, like that for ‘Population data by subject’ within the ‘People’ main heading, are sorted alphabetically – but some are not. The People main heading also gives a link to the staff list at the Bureau – though not an organisation chart. Looking up the population of Washington DC displayed the information for 1990, 2000 and 2003 – but in reverse order! This will confuse the non-numerate. A great deal of information was accessible practically instantly – indicating a very powerful server. Even downloading various parts of thematic maps was quick.
Apart from the obvious census and population estimate data, the Bureau is also responsible for some economic indicator data – with links to the individual subject areas through the drop down list on the home page. Some of the design changes, to provided centred information, not justified left as on the home page. I followed the links down to some of the recent information on housing – and came across some practically illegible PDF files. This is doubly user unfriendly: they are unreadable and cannot be downloaded.
The site is well constructed and will enable any amateur to gain quick access to a vast array of data. Nevertheless, it would appear that the site lacks design standards – or, if existing, they are inconsistently applied. The user needs to be at the centre of thought when designing navigation terminology: it is too easy to use terms that the experts understand but the ordinary user will not.
This review was undertaken using Internet Explorer version 5.50 on 2 May at 15.00 hrs GMT using a 2 Mbit link to the Internet on a Pentium 4 1.7 GHz machine.
Please send and comments and suggestions for sites to review to