Federal website use grows, but visitors are growing more critical, report says

A woman uses a computer at a Federal Communications Commission digital literacy seminar for seniors. (FCC / Flickr)

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A growing number of federal website users are skeptical of them despite a rapid rise in their use, according to a recent report by Forrester Research.

The report found that the number of unique visitors to federal websites grew by 14 percentage points in 2016, making the web the most popular communications channel for people to interact with agencies. A total of 44 percent of the public’s interactions with the government came through federal websites, the report says — more than other channels such as in-person meetings, phone calls, postal mail and email.

The survey, conducted for the past three years, polled roughly 4,600 federal “customers” living in the U.S. ages 18 and older who go online at least weekly.

According to the survey, the number of federal digital customers rose by 3 percentage points in 2016, which complemented a 6 percentage-point rise in customer satisfaction in the same period.

However, only 55 percent of customers find federal websites easy to use, Forrester found, a drop of 4 percentage points from the prior year.

Another 60 percent of customers said that federal websites contain relevant information — a drop of 7 percentage points from the prior year.

Rick Parrish, Forrester principal analyst and author of the report, attributed this increased figure to the Obama administration’s efforts to expand digital government in the lame-duck year, including the introduction of the first U.S. Web Design Standards.

Forrester said this deteriorated website experience could come as a surprise for customer experience professionals, especially after the launch of new websites for the Federal Election Commission and USAjobs.

Parrish told FedScoop on Wednesday that agencies should be concerned with customer dissatisfaction of their websites as Washington’s largest engagement with the public.

“You can’t wait around,” Parrish said. “This is tragic news. This is Washington’s biggest channel in engaging with the public and it’s getting worse. Do what you can now.”

“The public will quickly sour on digital government if website continue to get worse and agencies create new digital experiences that customers don’t want,” he warned.

Parrish offered three suggestions to alleviate customer concerns: more strategically designed mobile technology, immediate user experience reviews, and a formal explanation of digital technology to the public.

According to the report, which was released to the public Monday, only 5 percent of customers use federal apps. Parrish said federal agencies are not doing their due diligence in seeking customer input, and have focused on quantity rather than quality in app development. He added that by and large, apps are “not the answer.” Rather, website development is of utmost importance, he said.

“They’re not actually taking the time to figure out if customers want mobile apps,” Parrish said. “They’re measuring their success in how many apps they make. Federal agencies are simply not doing the right research.”

As an era of tighter budgets approaches, Parrish also warned that federal agencies could forget about the what he said are the three most important customer experience dimensions: effectiveness, ease, and, most importantly, emotion.

“What I find is that when federal agencies get worried about their budget they forget that they have to make digital a good  customer experience,” he said. “That’s now more important than ever.”

According to Forrester, 45 percent of customers think the federal government is behind the private sector in digital capability, while 33 percent trust the government to keep their personal data secure and just 40 percent think the federal government should offer more digital services.

Lastly, the number of federal website customers who consider the sites safe and secure dropped four percentage points to 60 percent.

The number of customers who found federal websites easy to use and those who said searching them can be confusing dipped four percentage points to 55 percent.

The Forrester data comes as the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released its own report Wednesday criticizing several areas of federal website performance, including page-load speeds and mobile-friendliness.

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Barack Obama, customer experience (CX), Forrester, Rick Parrish
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