Usability and the White House Email System

The New York Times reports about changes to the White House email system that make it less user-friendly. After reading the article, I decided to take a look for myself and here are a few things which could help improve the system:

First of all, a progress indicator should show how many more pages are required in order to complete the email. This would allow people to quickly understand that this may be a lengthier process than they expect and give them an indication of how close (or how far) they are to completing their communication.

The mention of I want to write a supporting comment/differing opinion as the first item is a bad approach. While I understand that it will make it easier to quickly assess the level of support or dissent on a particular issues, the approach likes granularity and inspires instant suspicion of darker motives. A better way to approach this would be to include this as a later step in the flow, asking whether the writer supports or opposes the policy or other (the other category allowing for people who are not fully in support or dissent on a policy to offer suggestions).

The next issue is in the breakdown by categories. Here, I would recommend that the system allow for a more granular approach, first letting users decide whether it is a particular policy matter (for example, a bill currently in front of congress), a general comment on a particular topic (maybe using the different governmental organizations as a top category and then breaking it down to the individual issues). The reason for this approach is that it would allow to get a much better redirection and could, undercover, also allow for messages to be sent to a particular person in a particular department, hence increasing the chance of a quick response.

For example, an email on Internet usability could be sent to the webmaster team of the site, as well as to some of the people responsible for Section 508, as well as to someone in the president’s office handling those issues. This would make for a more responsive government.

Instead of using a select box, the issues should be included as links, with a “more info” button next to each of the links. Clicking on that button would state the White House position on that particular issue, allowing to later select if you are writing to support or protest a particular position. This would also help in educating people about the president’s position on listed issues.

As it currently stands, the content organization makes it look as if there were a limited number of issues the president’s office is willing to discuss and as if the issues on the list are not part of the agenda, and therefore should be ignored. The lack of an “other” category re-emphasizes that feeling.

Once you have selected the proper topic, you are presented with a form asking for contact information. That form should include a prominent link to an explanation of the White House’s privacy policy (did you know that, by law, the site is supposed to retain all emails it receives for a period of 12 years?) This will help people better understand how the data will be handled and can help alleviate concerns.

The review screen should present the data in a clearer form. A good way to do so would be to highlight the headers information (from, name, address, etc…) in a separate block than the rest of the message.

That’s about it, off the top of my head. I’m sure others will find more fault with the system but I hope that this will contribute to the discussion. I know that some of the TNL.net readers are members of government (or at least read this site from governmental locations) so hopefully, those usability recommendations will make their way to the right place and the system will be improved.

As a side note, I recently heard that Bill Clinton did not use email much during his administration because of the heavy requirements for record-keeping. Email retention is a problem that is the bane of many organization, both governmental and corporate. It looks like this new email system is designed to better handle that kind of data. I wish the webmasters at whitehouse.gov much luck in figuring out how to fix it.

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