by Ed Swires-Hennessy, Local Government Data Unit - Wales
Ed continues his appraisals of different national Web Sites to stimulate use of the Internet, share best practice and encourage debate.
Welcome to the one hundredth article about the presentation of statistics on the web. The series started by accident in 1998 when I volunteered to do one review as I had just obtained an Internet link at home: those were the days – dial-up at 14.4 kbps! This line is now a 4 Mbps broadband cable connection and represents an effective doubling of the line speed every year.
I have sought, by highlighting both good and bad points of presentation and delivery, to encourage those responsible for statistical web sites to examine their own sites against points made. The overall aim has been to improve delivery to - and ease of use for - the user. In this regard, I am grateful to those who have fed back comments on usefulness of the reviews.
My thanks are due to many who have encouraged me over the years to continue with the series, particularly Wesley Miles at the Office for National Statistics in the UK and Richard Alldritt, my former manager. Thanks are also due to those who contributed a few articles in the early years as shadow writers, Sarah Williams and Ian Young.
This is the last of the regular reviews. A suggestion has been made that I undertake topic specific reviews across countries: I shall consider that through 2007 and any resultant reviews will be published on the Surfing with Ed web site with appropriate e-mails to regular contacts and references to note their existence.
I shall, however, continue to review web sites on request without publication.
This edition is different from the previous reviews and summarises what I look for in a statistical site. Many of the points are generally applicable to any site and I should be happy for readers to share the article.
The Home page and all major pages should be of a clear and concise design that, on normal text size view, fit within one standard (1024x768) screen. The colour palette chosen should be effective in discriminating hyperlinks from standard text. Any pictures and graphics displayed should always have tool-tips so that the visually impaired users can appreciate what is presented and, if the graphic is hyperlinked, an opening similar to ‘graphic and link to ..’. In the review last month of the UK National Statistics site, the main site logo’s tool-tip noted only ‘National Statistics’ not ‘Link to home page of UK National Statistics’. Similarly, all text should allow sizing for the visually impaired. Relatively simple designs with well-structured pages are the most effective – providing that they are delivered quickly to the user. Slow delivery, however, may not be the fault of the page composition but could be an effect of server delivery – as in the case of the web site of the Welsh Assembly Government. If it seems like you are waiting for paint to dry – the user will not be impressed!
One of the difficult questions all web designers face is ‘Who is the user?’. The difficulty with presentation on the web is that we are seeking to serve many different sets of users – from those in school or university, through the ‘just want a number’ set to the experienced user who wants tables of data. Sites should be appropriate for all users. The Central Statistical Office in Ireland (http://www.cso.ie) is working towards a site developed for such disparate sets of users.
Navigation should be clear, instantly visible, consistently presented and intuitive. The most effective statistical home page I have ever seen had just five choices: shortly after I praised the site design it was changed! Colours for hyperlinks should be standardised throughout the site and the formatting of links should be consistent (underline, bold etc). The importance of good navigation cannot be stressed enough: it has to be clear, consistent and correct. Fail in this and the user is lost.
The use of threads is becoming more popular and is helpful to the user. Top and side navigation (as well as some standard bottom of page navigation) is often too much: use the power of web delivery to lead the user through the maze!
Some of the recent web navigation philosophy has centred around the ‘Deliver in no more than x clicks’. From a user perspective the number of clicks is less important than the understanding that they are definitely on the right track to what they want.
Data and chart presentation on the web has suffered from a distant relationship between the owner of the data and the web team on many sites. The principles and standards strictly followed for paper publication are often thrown away when it comes to web dissemination. All tables should have the data right justified in the columns, uninterrupted by notes. The Dutch, in their dissemination product StatLine – found on the right-hand navigation of the home page (http://www.cbs.nl/en-GB/default.htm) - have used the power of web delivery to enhance note and definition delivery to the user. This allows the user to follow links to explain anything unknown: the principle is foundational to products like MSN Encarta –a good example to follow.
Three dimensional and animated graphics are non-standard, distracting and rarely present the data in a statistically correct manner. However, web delivery does provide for the use of Scaleable Vector Graphics: this allows effective display of data over time, e.g. a population pyramid, as well as illustrating data for specific areas on maps.
A good site that provides for different types of users will have both a ‘Country in figures’ set of tables as well as extensive data sets that the experienced user can dice and slice before delivery in a variety of different formats.
Inevitably statistical web sites use technical terms: a good site would include a glossary of the terms with simple explanations – for the ordinary person in the street. Where whole documents are hyperlinked, the user should be made aware of the size of the file and the type of file. The UK government recommended maximum file size on the web is 350 Kb: many examples exist where the files are much larger than this. The prize goes to a country where the whole of a statistical yearbook was in one PDF file of size 18 Mb! Ideally presentation should be in more than one type – and, for text, HTML or equivalent (with effective restructuring of the product) should be one of the types.
Finland (http://www.stat.fi/index_en.html) has developed a Microsoft Word template for the preparation of all statistical press releases. The content is split up by XML and delivered, reconstituted, to various parts of their system in 7 different formats!
A good site has a sufficient set of contact information that includes, postal addresses of offices, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for queries and maps of where the offices are. If library facilities or data shops are available, their hours of opening and contact information is necessary. One of the best for e-mail contacts is Iceland (http://www.statice.is) where even the Director General’s e-mail address and telephone number is freely available.
Through the last 9 years of statistical web surfing I have sought to encourage high standards of web delivery with the user as the prime focus. An acknowledged difficulty is that the technological change has been frighteningly fast and still continues apace. Let me conclude by noting that our statistics are now much more widely available through the Internet and that the user-base and frequency of access have increased well beyond that of our paper publications. We have achieved much in Internet delivery of statistics – but many challenges still lie ahead.
I wish all my readers a Happy Christmas and a very successful Web New Year. Happy surfing …
This review was undertaken by Ed Swires-Hennessy.