CUA of the Month – July, 2007

Donna Freeman
"The state of California has really embraced the idea of usability, and they are funding it. Usability is good business."
 
Donna Freeman
Certified Usability Analyst
California Franchise Tax Board

Usability: The Gold Standard

by June Oliver

Going for the gold is a California tradition, from the gold rush of 1849 to the Summer Olympics of 1984. If Donna Freeman has her way, 32 million Californians will be shouting "Eureka!" the next time they search the Web site of the Franchise Tax Board, where she works as a Certified Usability Analyst. The Franchise Tax Board (FTB) operates on an Olympian scale, processing 15 million tax returns a year and collecting 40 billion dollars in revenue.

The FTB portal serves a significant percentage of the state's 36 million inhabitants. Yet back in 2005, when HFI first teamed up with Donna and the FTB, an alarming 76% of the web site's visitors weren't even sure they were actually on the FTB site.

But usability, like panning for gold, is a process – one which Donna now finds herself at the heart of. Her successful involvement with the FTB portal redesign earned her a key role in developing standards for all California state Web sites. She is the Usability sub-group lead for IOUCA, (the state's Information Organization, Usability, Currency, and Accessibility working group).

"The state of California has really embraced the idea of usability," says Donna, "and they are funding it. Usability is good business."

In fact, it was the business manager of the FTB portal, Russ Reece, who introduced Donna to usability in 2001. The FTB was implementing a new content management system, and Donna helped with the pilot testing while serving as project leader for implementation.

"Russ was the executive buy-in," Donna says. "He views usability as an investment with a big return."

He's not alone. Andrew Armani, California Director of eServices, also sees usability as the way to provide better service and save costs simultaneously.

"The ROI is a central issue," says Donna. "Government has to be cost-effective."

The mandate for cost-effectiveness has only made Donna more creative. "We've gotten good at doing usability testing on a dime. We use the 'friends and family' approach for recruiting test participants, in addition to using other government employees who don't deal with taxes. The key is to get objective feedback from people who are not insiders."

Usability testing is Donna's favorite hands-on part of the job. "Every test produces at least one of those 'duh!' moments where I wonder, 'Why didn't I see this before?'"

For example, she points to the Spanish tab on the FTB site. "If you provide a tab that says Español, you create an expectation that content will be in Spanish from that point on. So when one lady clicked deeper into the section and found a page in English, she told me she felt tricked."

Getting the citizen's point of view is second nature to Donna, who joined the FTB in 1982. After a few seasons keying in tax returns, she spent several years answering questions in the FTB call center, then moved into training and writing procedures. Today, the call center is Donna's reality check.

"One of the things we did before our redesign was observing the call center. It gave us insight about the terminology that regular people use to articulate their questions," she says. "We still work actively with the call center staff to see what issues come up and track where the problems are. The good news is that our usability efforts are paying off and the site is more self-evident."

The FTB has also collaborated with the state's Board of Equalization, which processes sales and use tax, and the Employment Development Department, which administers employment taxes. Donna now spends half her time as business manager for the California Tax Service Center web site, where all of these agencies converge.

"Most of my time is devoted to usability activities, though," she explains. "I'm a conduit between the technical and non-technical personnel. The potential to train multiple agencies how to do usability is very appealing. I get the most satisfaction from being involved in the beginning of a new thing."

With Donna's contributions, the FTB's new site won a 2006 Gold Award at California's annual State Information Officers Council event. In California's new usability rush, with 79 departments and 300 boards and commissions in the running, Donna has definitely staked her claim.

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to hfi@humanfactors.com

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