The information currently visible to users on the landing (home) page of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) includes the following elements:
- The title
- The rotating banner
- The new name and mission
- Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities (report)
- Unemployment Among Doctoral Scientists and Engineers (InfoBrief)
- The left-side navigation
- About NCSES
- Other links for contacting NCSES
To find the appropriate links for accomplishing major user-identified tasks beyond accessing the report and InfoBrief, users have to scroll “below the fold.”2
1This appendix was prepared by panel member Diane Fournier.
2The part of a web page that is visible in the web browser window when the page first loads is described as being “above the fold.” See The Motive Web Design Glossary, available: http://www.motive.co.nz [November 2011].
Suggestion: NCSES should place the most important information, based on user feedback, at the top of the page.
NCSES landing (home) page: three different titles are used to describe the NCSES subsite: “Statistics” (National Science Foundation, NSF, tab title), “Science and Engineering Statistics” (NSF home page), and the “National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES).” This is a problem for users who are asked to make the leap between “Statistics” and “NCSES.”
Although the first item in the “Statistics” drop-down menu, “Science & Engineering Statistics,” explains more fully the type of statistics found on this site by using a more descriptive title, this link is not needed, since it links to the current landing page. This behavior does not respect two usability standards: (1) a hyperlink on a page should not send users to the current page and (2) two hyperlinks that are named differently should bring users to different content pages.
Suggestion: Consider testing the current version with users (frequent and infrequent) through task completion exercises to find out whether navigation is difficult for them given that the information scent3 is reduced with the use of different titles. Test with a second version in which the tab name “Statistics” is changed to “Science and Engineering Statistics.” This would be consistent with the name on the right-side navigation of the NSF home page (see http://www.nsf.gov/ [November 2011]) and would allow the user to eliminate the first item in the drop-down menu or eliminate the drop-down menu altogether, since Search statistics and About statistics are covered elsewhere.
Breadcrumb trail: a breadcrumb trail is a row of links showing how the site is structured. It is usually located at the top of the page. It prevents users from feeling lost in the site, especially if they arrive deep into the site from an Internet search engine or from a saved bookmark and do not know where they are in relation to the full NSF site.
Suggestion: Add a breadcrumb trail at the top of the page.
Left-side navigation: the first thing that catches the eye is the title with the graphic. Although the graphic provides a splash of color on the page, it
3The information scent predicts a path’s success. The navigation of the page with good information scent will signal to the user that they have reached or are nearing their goal. Available: http://www.motive.co.nz [November 2011].
is not necessarily the best use of this prime real estate, as it is not communicating information. Consider removing the image or using the image as a background to the title bar. (It is recognized that this will require changes to the NSF design.)
Suggestion: If, through user testing, NCSES finds that users respond better to changing the title “Science and Engineering Statistics,” then use the title here. NCSES should consider removing the image if the NSF template allows for it to be removed. This will bring the menu items further up the page, and more links will be visible above the fold. The new design should consider removing the hyperlink from the “Statistics” left-side navigation title.
Positioning of the links: the links “About NCSES (formerly SRS),” “Topics: A to Z,” “View Staff Directory,” and “Contact NCSES,” although critical on any web page, are usually placed at the bottom of the page in the footer or in the left-side navigation because they are applicable to the whole website. Such commonplace links should be left out of the primary navigation and placed in secondary navigation at the bottom of the page, out of the way of primary tasks. These links “About NCSES,” “Topics: A to Z,” and the like are not competing tasks so they should be places at the bottom of the page. If user-centered design guidelines are followed, the number of users who need to contact NCSES for help will decrease.
Suggestions: Place the “About NCSES,” “Topics: A to Z,” “View Staff Directory,” and “Contact NCSES” at the bottom of the menu, since the footer is already occupied with NSF Help and Contact information. Add “About NCSES” to the NSF “About” tab drop-down menu.
Search NSF and NCSES: usability standards suggest that there should only be one search box on a page. It can be confusing for users to have both the site search and the NCSES search boxes on the NCSES landing page.
Currently the NSF site search box can accommodate 23 characters. Standards suggest that the minimum should be 27 characters.
Another usability standard recommends that different hyperlinks on a page with the same name, or suggesting the same name, should link to the same page. Currently, the “Search NCSES” in the left-side navigation and the “Search Statistics” in the tab drop-down menu bring users to different applications. At least the pages look different, suggesting that the applications are different. It would be best to make NCSES search an option in the NSF site search drop-down menu. That way, the search bar in the left-side
navigation and the “Search Statistics” link could be removed. It is essential that users can locate and use search functionality effortlessly.
Suggestion: Consider removing the NCSES search box, unless the NSF search engine does not contain NCSES content; consider changing the arrow button of the site search to a larger button that is raised with the word “Search” on it. (This adds affordance by ensuring that a button with round corners makes it look like it is clickable.) Consider removing the NSF Search drop-down menu, since it does not contain the NCSES search option or, alternatively, add the NCSES search option.
NCSES publications: between the NSF site search, the NCSES subsite search, the NSF publication search, and the NCSES publication search, there are too many search options available on the site. Which one should a user try first? Which one will provide the expected results? How many search options will a user try if they are unsuccessful with their first choice, their second choice, and so forth? The methods for searching and browsing with each one are very different.
The use of facets when finding a NCSES publication works very well. Combining such facets with the NSF site search could be very interesting. It is therefore unclear why more than one publication search is necessary.
Similarly, it is unclear why the “Science and Engineering Indicators” and the “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in S&E” links are available under the NCSES Publications section of the menu, inserted between the “Find a Publication” and “Browse by Title” links. These high-demand publications could be more effectively featured by adding the pointers as features on the rotating banner and/or in the center of the home page.
Suggestion: Consider deleting this section of the left-side navigation if NCSES publications can be searched or browsed under the NSF site search. Allow users to quickly link to the most sought-after publications by including them in the rotating banner or in the center page.
Surveys and data: in this area of the left-side navigation, the “Data and Tools” heading links to the same page as the “Data Files” link. As stated above, two different hyperlinks should bring users to different content pages. Having all of the data and tools listed in the left-side navigation would allow users to directly link to these data and tools without having to go through their description first. This could simplify the navigational path for frequent users.
Suggestion: Remove “Data and Tools” heading because it leads to the same page as “Data Files.” Change the links under this heading to read:
- Survey Descriptions
- Data and Tools
- Microdata files
- Public-use files
- Integrated Science and Engineering Resources Data System (WebCASPAR)
- Industrial Research and Development Information System (IRIS)
- Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) Tabulation Engine
- Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT)
Subject section in the left-side navigation: a subject section in the left-side navigation could contain the sections currently on the landing page. Doing so allows for the main tasks to appear in the center of the page.
Suggestion: Consider moving the subjects from the center of the page to the left-side navigation to ensure that subjects are available to users regardless of the page they are viewing.
Site features: it would be preferable to change “Other Links” to “Links to Other Sites,” because it should be clear to users that taking this navigational path will eventually lead the user away from the NSF site. The FedStats link does not indicate that users will leave the NSF site. NCSES might want to use an icon to indicate this.
Suggestion: Consider changing “Other Links” to “Links to Other Sites.” Consider adding an image indicating that users will be leaving the NSF site if they click on “FedStats.”
Rotating banner: the banner currently contains three features. It is unclear why these were chosen and how often they remain as features.
A collapse option for the banner is a really good idea because many users find rotating banners distracting. Adding an indicator as to the number of features as well as a pause button, giving the user further control of rotation, would be beneficial for users. However, when viewing on a smartphone, the rotating banner is not displayed, leaving the [collapse] link floating on the page without purpose.
Suggestion: Consider testing the visual design on different platforms.
Minimalist design: content adds noise to a web page, and too much noise reduces the usability of the page because of the overload of information. Therefore, dialog that is rarely needed and competes with relevant information should be deleted or made available to users as they progressively drill down through the different layers of detail.
When writing for the web, the linear narrative is considered as filler content by users, slowing down their ability to jump around the page; it is usually best to find the key words that they are looking for to complete their task.
Suggestion: Consider reducing the amount of text on text-heavy pages, because users generally do not read it—rather they scan for information looking to choose their next navigational path.
Review data tools: NCSES data tool users have openly said that building and retrieving data tables are not simple tasks. Additional user consultation should take place to simplify these tools. Also, consider consolidating the data tools into one data table builder or more clearly indicating the differences between them.
Suggestion: Consider conducting ethnographic interviews with users at their place of work or conduct usability testing with specific tasks to understand user’s difficulties when using NCSES tools. Consider developing one data tool for meeting one-stop shopping needs.
2008 Writing Style for Print vs. Web, Alertbox. Available: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/print-vs-online-content.html [November 2011].
Nielsen, J., and H. Loranger
2006 Prioritizing Web Usability. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
Shaikh, D., and K. Lenz
2006 Where’s the search? Re-examining user expectations of web objects. Usability News 8(1). Available: http://www.surl.org/usabilitynews/81/webobjects.asp [November 2011].