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Usability and community in a dynamic e-democracy website

MSc: Multimedia Technology, 2002

Overview

The overall research question here is “How can an e-consultation tool be improved?” In terms of usability this means “How can the completion of the tasks involved be facilitated for everyone in the target audience?” The tasks for this project include reading background information about sustainable development and joining the threaded discussion by reading other users’ comments and adding appropriate contributions. Enabling the completion of this task with the minimum of frustration is essential. However, this basic task analysis reveals that improving an e-consultation tool goes beyond technical solutions and requires some encouragement for users to engage with each other’s opinions in order for a discussion to take place. Given the asynchronous nature of e-consultant as a communications medium, users ideally need to return and join in again at a later date for the discussion to have depth and momentum.

This is where the analysis of successful community websites may be instructive. What is it about the context of these sites that enables deeper levels of communication to form? Can these qualities be adopted and adapted to create amenable opportunities for democratic deliberation through ICTs?

E-consultations also enable the provision of an underlying layer of information on which to base this deliberation. This information needs to be written and structured in such a way as to be accessible to everyone within the target audience while covering issues which are generally complicated. Added to this is evidence that users dislike reading large amounts of text online. A further complication arises through the possibility of the information provided displaying a bias towards a certain point of view, perhaps of the writers or stakeholders. This leads to research questions concerning the development of suitable background information and the way it is structured and displayed on the site.

Methodology

Literature review

The background to this project lies in a series of overlapping areas:

Website design

The website was designed and implemented by the International Teledemocracy Centre (ITC) with support from BT: ITC developed an HTML prototype based on previous versions of e-consultant, part of ITC's e-toolkit. BT converted this into a database-driven website.

E-consultant is a web-based application that enables the provision of background information and the mechanisms for threaded discussion. Visitors may read the particulars of a consultation, read background information provided and read or take part in the discussion. E-consultant is adapted for each consultation in line with the subject matter and target audience, taking into account the evaluation of previous e-consultations. The principal way in which e-consultant was adapted for this consultation was by dividing both the background information and discussion threads into a series of issues, which were each given an identity, using graphics as well as text. A principal focus of the evaluation was to discover the extent to which this was successful: helpful in keeping the threads on topic and encouraging coverage of aspects of the debate that may have been neglected otherwise.

Scenarios of use

Two scenarios of use were also written to clarify understanding of contributors experience of using the website within context.

Analysis

As well as developing methods to improve e-democracy tools, we need to find and refine the best ways to evaluate them. Our analysis is two pronged to match the nature of our subject:

  1. We evaluate the project in terms of usability: users' capabilities and preferences in completing the tasks. This is done by gathering feedback from a self-selecting group of visitors to the site who completed the online questionnaire we had devised for this purpose.
  2. We evaluate the site in terms of the social interaction it enabled. This is done by a content analysis of the users' contributions: the comments made in the debate.

The success of the provision and structure of background information is covered by both these analyses. Omissions, bias and readability are likely to be highlighted by responses to the online questionnaire. If the structure is confusing or unsuitable, this should also be reflected in this feedback. As the comments and background information were structured into the same threads, the analysis of comments should reveal the success or otherwise of this structure. The relationship of the content of the contributions to the information provided should also indicate whether it was read and whether it was considered useful, biased or incomplete.

The analysis of comments also served to provide the Scottish Executive with a detailed summary of contributors' ideas and concerns about the topics.

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Conclusions

Our evaluation based on voluntary feedback from visitors to the website suggests ways in which the usability of the site could be improved. Coupling these together with ideas from usability metrics and guidelines, we created a list of suggested improvements to include in the design of the next e-consultant website.

These include:

To discover the best way to implement these and judge their success a more iterative development cycle is advocated, with greater use of representatives of the target audience to test prototypes.

The evaluation of comments posted demonstrated the success of the e-consultation in providing a forum for informed, on topic discussion, which was the main e-democracy objective. The division of the subject matter into seven issues (excluding "Good Practice") seemed to maintain the focus of each of these threads and went some way to spreading the discussion across the extensive and varied terrain of sustainable development. More complete background information should have included an outline of current sustainability initiatives. The use of expert witnesses would also have been a useful way to continuously link factual information or informed opinion to the main body of the debate: the discussion itself.

Where the consultation was less successful was in achieving a good level of deliberation. Partly this was due to not attracting enough visitors to develop momentum. A more focused publicity campaign may have helped. Perhaps related to this, or perhaps because of the temporary nature of the discussion, there was little meaningful interaction between contributors. This is where ideas were drawn from successful community websites to see if they could be adapted for our purposes. Mechanisms outlined above, to encourage visitors to return and rejoin the debate, include the use of expert witnesses as seeds to draw contributors into discussion and the use of timetabled events (like interviews with ministers) and emailed summaries to remind previous contributors that the discussion was continuing and progressing. If these were added, perhaps a greater level of deliberation would have taken place.

The "What sort of Scotland do we want to live in?" website

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