Using Analytics to Create Change: USA.gov Usability Case Study

While many people tout the death of the home page, it’s still an important piece of the user experience on USA.gov. In 2013, 30% of all sessions on USA.gov included the home page—that’s 8.67 million sessions. The numbers for GobiernoUSA.gov are even higher—79% of all sessions included the home page. According to Jakob Nielsen, “A homepage has two main goals: to give users information, and to provide top-level navigation to additional information inside the site.” Over the years, our home pages had evolved to focus more on promoting content we thought was exciting instead of the top tasks of our users. In response, we launched new home pages on June 11. How did we make the case for this major change? The answer is analytics.

Tell a Compelling Story

We closely analyzed Web metrics, internal search data, heat maps of clicks, customer satisfaction survey data, and the results of usability testing to tell a compelling story of what visitors do before, during, and after a visit to our home page. This story was then presented to management to make the case for change. Here’s a brief snapshot of our story: We know that most visitors to USA.gov—about 80%—are new and come to USA.gov with a purpose. The two words that appeared most often in our customer satisfaction survey comments were “find information.” We see the same thing for GobiernoUSA.gov. Once visitors got to our old home page, many searched. We think a large reason for this is because most of the content on the site wasn’t visible on the home page.

It didn’t help that the first thing under the main navigation bar was a large feature area that we called the rotator box. This box contained three different topics. Topics included seasonal observances, promotions, or major government news, such as the deadline to enroll for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
A homepage for usa.gov with a rotating item circled in red.
The features in the rotator did not advance automatically which meant that the arrow to move to the next feature received more clicks than the content itself. We found that content featured in the rotator box performed much better when promoted through other methods, such as our email subscription lists. From this data, we can infer that most visitors to the old home page took this path or a similar one: New visitors tried to find information. They looked at the rotator and didn’t find the information they wanted. Then they scanned the rest of the page and eventually searched.

Use the Data to Make Changes

Now the first thing visitors see under the main navigation bar is a box that tells you more about what to expect from USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov. This is useful for new visitors. Next, is a box that contains anchor links to the other sections of the page. Since USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov are responsive sites, this is particularly helpful and used on mobile devices. Lastly, we added an optional feature area. It’s no longer a rotator and only has one item. If it’s not needed, the email sign up box will expand to fill the entire width of the page.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

We prepared a detailed report on home page visitor behavior in April 2013. In September 2013, we formed a bilingual project team to tackle the content on the home pages. After looking at all of the data, we created and tested wireframes, and then designed, developed, and launched the new homepages in June 2014. But we know we’re not done yet—it’s a continuous process. It can take time to make major changes, but the effort is worth it if it improves the experience for your visitors. Hopefully our work will do just that for millions of people.

Michelle Chronister is the User Experience Team Lead, USA.gov, at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)

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