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How Websites Raise or Ruin Agency Trustworthiness

When a citizen has a burning tax question and they turn to the internet for answers, how are they to know whether the site is authentic, or just an excellent copycat?


This is the problem faced by Erica Deahl and her team of designers at 18F, the digital services agency based within the General Services Administration. In her talk entitled “Zooming Out on Design” at AIGA’s DotGov Design Conference Friday, Deahl stressed the importance of all federal agencies adapting a similar and cleaner web presence in order to improve how they interact with the public.

Through numerous rounds of user research, Deahl discovered that citizens use clues such as finding a site with a .gov domain, looking for an official agency seal, and seeking out sites that just “look official” to decipher a real federal site from a knockoff.

And not only the look of the site, but the usability as well. When a person visits to sign up for insurance, they want the process to be intuitive, but Deahl gave the example that the big red “Start Here” button on the Department of Veterans Affairs site seems to the user like the place to go for insurance, but the button only led users to a static pdf that said they need to update their adobe software. Not a great user experience.

In order to help agencies provide users with a better experience, 18F released the U.S. Web Design Standards, a repository of information and tools to help agencies across the government achieve a more consistent web presence. The Standards currently include a visual style guide plus elements for agencies to plug into their sites, and 18F plans to expand these guidelines in the near future.

Deahl explained how closely design is tied to trust when she emphasized that the quality and usability of a site builds or breaks a user’s trust.

"If the official site itself looks amateurish, it makes people doubt its authenticity" Deahl said.

And that’s not just the front page. 18F plans to offer more guidance on how agencies can foster a streamlined experience throughout their entire site, or “full stack harmony.”

One conference attendee and designer with the Marines asked Deahl how they were preventing fraudulent site builders from accessing the Standards in order to create better knock off sites and collect information from site visitors.

To that, Deahl said it’s an issue they are currently working on, but have yet to discover an elegant solution.

Overall, 18F just wants to help agencies build better relationships with the public by giving them an enjoyable web experience which, in turn, will garner their trust. Deahl said that the best websites are the ones where users are able to find the information they need without any problems or setbacks, and that’s what 18F has in mind for every agency.

“We know we’ve succeeded when people don’t notice something going wrong,” Said Deahl. 

Posted in General News

Tags: GSA, federal web design, web design, DotGov Design, 18F, AIGA DC



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