We recently evaluated seven of the most-visited US federal websites. Here’s a sampling of the good and the bad from what real users of these websites told us:

“I found the website very easy to navigate. Everything was on the home page. The links were easy to understand.”

“Each page has a lot of information, and then starting the process, you had to go through a bunch of pages that each gave you a small piece of information. I could see someone forgetting what one of the earlier pages said. There is a better way of handling this.”

Great user experience (UX) is designed to make accomplishing “top tasks” easy — those three to five most important things users are trying to do on your website or app. And here, as you can gather from these quotes, US federal websites get it half-right.

What Federal Websites Get Right: Home Pages Make Navigating To Top Tasks Easy

Most federal websites do better than most private sector companies at avoiding common missteps like 1) showing a large banner image that fills most of the home page, requiring users to scroll excessively to find information or 2) littering navigational tab and link names with internal jargon.

Visit the home pages of the Social Security Administration (SSA), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or Bureau of Consular Affairs websites, and you’ll notice government websites do two things particularly well:

  • Elevate the most important services the agency provides. For example, the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page has large calls to action to get a passport, find international travel information, and get US visas.
  • Speak in terms customers understand. For example, the VA website uses action-oriented labeling such as “Refill and track your prescriptions” to direct users to four categories of top tasks.

What Federal Agencies Get Wrong: Content Is Clear But Overwhelming

Content on federal websites is generally written in words customers understand. That’s not surprising, given standards in place thanks to resources like Digital.gov and the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). But despite efforts to be clear, users reported feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information. Even the sites that fared best in our review stumbled when it comes to writing concisely and establishing a clear content hierarchy. Common missteps included:

  • Creating an experience that feels “cluttered.” As one user said of the VA website, The site was cluttered and looked like it had been designed by a committee. Information flow was poor and did not seem logical when all I needed was a step-by-step process to determine eligibility.”
  • Failing to write concisely. As a user of the SSA website said, “I would definitely improve how the information is presented. I like bullet points and the FAQs, but I noticed there was a lot of fluff in areas. I would try to keep it more simple.”

Curious to learn more? Read the full report, “The Forrester Government Wave™: US Federal Government Websites, Q1 2020.”

Special thanks to my colleagues Rick Parrish, Senem Guler Biyikli, and Madeline King for their partnership on this research. Our user experience evaluation used UserZoom’s unmoderated think-aloud study feature, as well as a heuristic review and a functionality review. We then analyzed scores and user comments across five dimensions of user experience quality (effectiveness, ease, confidence, freedom, and aesthetics) and 22 functionality criteria.

If you’re interested, Forrester offers advisory and benchmarking for clients to identify their site or app’s strengths and weaknesses, prioritize improvements, and help make the case internally.

Contact me at gbhawalkar@forrester.com if you have questions about the methodology or applying it to your site.