Tuesday, June 17, 2008

When good websites turn bad

I've had a keen interest in the Attorney General's Department for a number of years now.

That's not because they may - or may not - be the government department most likely to have James Bond, Triple X or the Men In Black working for them.

It's because they do a lot of important things across a range of areas, but rarely seem to get much credit for it.

For example, while their name suggests a dry, boring legal portfolio - and indeed they do have a large role in the intersection between Australia's legal system and government - they are also responsible for developing emergency management systems and supporting emergency management services, which become pretty important to people when there is an earthquake, flood or other disaster.

They also look after the Family Relationship Centres, which play an enormous role in supporting families around the country and manage Comlaw, THE source for legislative information in Australia and Australian Law Online, equally the source for legal and justice related information.

That's not to mention counter-terrorism, or engagement with the justice systems across the Pacific.

These are all important and useful activities and would make the AG's Department a very interesting place to work.

But what have they done to their website?
The other day I visited the main AG's website for the first time in awhile and was surprised at what I found.

I have my views on attractive and usable web design and they don't match what the AG's Department has done to their site.

The URL icon in the web address bar is cute - a scale of justice, much clearer than using a Commonwealth crest which suffers at a 16x16 pixel size. Unfortunately this was also the high point for me.

The site is coloured a very bright orange, fading through to blue with black highlights. The crest is nicely positioned at a good size at top left, but doesn't blend well with the page - it sits on a solid dark background and has harsh lines separating it from the rest of the design.

The website homepage has more than 70 visible links, organised into topic area throughout the left half two-thirds of the website - basically exposing much of the site navigation, using up most of the visible area to do it rather than neat dropdown menus.

It does have a right-hand column with several news items, Ministerial links and a couple of publications.

However that left hand area with all those links! It doesn't make the site very attractive or usable, it's simply overwhelming!

I did go to the site for a specific purpose, but after one look at the homepage, I fled back to Google and searched for the content instead - finding it within seconds.

I think that many other users similarly overwhelmed with options would react in a similar way.

So what mistake has AG's made - the concept that if links are good, more links are better?
That a home page, being largely a navigation page, should simple be a list of links?

Certainly that was the peak of user design back in the mid-90s, when Yahoo launched with a groundbreaking list of lists, neatly categorised by type. But I do not see any of today's popular sites taking a similar approach - perhaps the world has moved on.

I'm sure the department had good intentions for this design and was aiming to making it easier for the many audiences that visit the AG's site, for many different reasons.

However I do not think the approach selected will maximise the utility of the site - and look out for that 'bounce' rate!

Bounce rate (From Google Analytics' definition)
Bounce Rate is the percentage of single-page visits (i.e. visits in which the person left your site from the entrance page). Bounce Rate is a measure of visit quality and a high Bounce Rate generally indicates that site entrance (landing) pages aren't relevant to your visitors.

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