AR; of usability and civic engagement

Taking a quick break from credibility issues, let’s look now at an article from the New Media and Society about the usability of websites, and how that is related to civic engagement. (“Public life and the internet: if you build a better website, will citizens become engaged?” – and if you want a short answer, it’s “yes.”)

The authors linked uses and gratifications theory (assuming goal-oriented users, what motivates them to consume online media?) with Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion (a general model describing three general levels of civic engagement, and the way in which media organizations help or hinder people reaching these levels). Reflecting on the assumption that positive media experience somehow leads to increased civic activity, the main question of the study was how the usability of websites (“usability” being understood based on the users’ criteria) affects civic engagement.

Usability was operationalized as a 3-dimensional construct, comprising of “content,” “organization” and “presentation.” In this particular study, a website was created that got streamlined after heavy usability-testing, and its use was compared to that of the control site, a website dealing with the same topic (next year’s budget plans), which has not been tested or optimized for usability in any way.

The results?

Overall, the website that received “usability treatment” fared much better in increasing the civic engagement of users.

“[…] the participants who viewed the site designed for usability were significantly more likely to say that the site encouraged them to be more interested […], become involved in a social issue[…]. [But] there was no significant relationship between greater use of online sites of all kinds and attitudes toward civic engagement.”

Probably not surprisingly, the most important usability factor was proven to be content. Whatever is classified as “interesting and relevant” content, in its absence, users will have no basic reason to visit a site, and thus to develop an interest about whatever its contents are.

But appearance is also important: like it or not, intellectual appeal should be paired with visual appeal.

Unfortunately – and this is a bit of letdown, considering the title of the study – the third component of the usability construct, “organization,” has not finally been tested, because there was no difference in navigation between the control site and the experimental site. However, when summing up the results, the authors conclude that, in the surveyed websites

“[…] content […] was written in a nonlinear style so that users could access it in the order they chose, not one chosen for them, as in traditional media. It was structured in separate, self-contained “chunks” and made heavy use of lists, charts and graphics rather than relying on an inverted pyramid narrative. The information was presented with entry points and clear, no-nonsense headlines to help guide readers to the information they were seeking.”

This kind of organization of information is peculiar to websites (as opposed to linear access print or broadcast media); and since it offers an easier way to access information, it is supposed to contribute to the overall effect of websites on their users.

Just how exactly this contribution takes place, and what exactly are the “organizational” features of websites that affect their users feeling of involvement – that would be really interesting to see. (Nudge, nudge.)

Coleman, R., Lieber, P., Mendelson, A.L. and Kurpius, D.D. (2008): “Public life and the internet: if you build a better website, will citizens become engaged?”, in New Media and Society 10(2): 179-201.

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