United States Embassy web site: thumbs down

Can of worms
The Plain English Awards ceremony 2008 last Thursday celebrated heroes of plain English in New Zealand. Four categories are for web sites, and web content is a big factor in other categories too.

The United States Embassy in Wellington was a clear winner of the Brainstrain award for the worst web site: People's Choice. For this category, members of the public nominate the worst web sites, and the judges pick a winner.

With all finalists in the Brainstrain web site award, the nominator was enraged by a single factor - so enraged that they entered the site for this dreaded award. In fact, the other two finalists were good web sites apart from one frustrating problem. That's a sobering thought, isn't it?

On the Embassy site the offending page was about fiancé(e) visas. Here's an example of its impenetrable prose:

To apply for K-1 visa classification for an intended alien spouse, an American citizen must file a petition, Form I-129F, with the USCIS Regional Service Center having jurisdiction over the place of the petitioner's residence in the United States. Such petitions can not be adjudicated abroad.

But the entire Embassy web site is a worthy winner, being absolutely riddled with problems. Take a look at the site and this is what you'll see.

  1. Ugliness.
  2. Links to news pages on the same site open in new window: annoying and unconventional.
  3. Ambassador bio starts with 168-word paragraph: overwhelming and unread on a web site.
  4. Underlining of non-link phrases.
  5. Breadcrumbs don’t always match the page: many apparent home pages.
  6. Making Of U.S. Foreign Policy page consists of Introduction, circuitous structure, no other subheadlines.
  7. "The content has moved. It can now be found here."
  8. Justified text.
  9. Long pages with no subheadings.
  10. Inconsistent design and navigation.
  11. Menu items that would open but not close.
  12. Too-small font making links almost invisible.

I mustn't waste my whole day here. But here's another small example of incompetent, hostile, negative web content. Believe it or not, the final word in the following quote, "this", is a link.

Failure to turn in your I-94 (or I-94W) when you leave the U.S. could create serious problems for you when traveling to the U.S. in the future. For information on how to rectify this, please read this.

The amateurish design and writing on the US Embassy site gives a strong impression that they couldn't care less about their readers. This is the non-verbal message I get: We're frightfully big and important. You aren't. So why don't you Kiwis just go away and stop bothering us?

By the way, the official judges' comments are much more polite than my intemperate ranting, which is strictly personal. We just stated that confusing government-speak gave its website an unfriendly and impersonal tone.

The Brainstrain prize is a rubbish bin full of sour worms. The judges are not competing for the honour of delivering these to the Embassy. However, in the best scenario, the winners say, Fair cop. We will fix this problem and do better in future.

Now, on a brighter note...

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) won the premier award of $10,000 for outstanding progress in creating a plain English culture within the organisation. That's no mean feat with 1000 employees scattered around the world. As WriteMark leader Lynda Harris said, "We deliberately make this award extremely hard to win."

See all winners and finalists on the WriteMark web site.

Prime News: First at 5.30: only on Sunday 14 September see the Plain English Awards video coverage. Starts around 6.26 mins.


Sep 21, 2008 • Posted by rachel

Let me add a couple of squeaks to this interesting conversation. Firstly, plain English always involves layout and design as well as words and sentences. Plenty of white space and informative sub-headlines, for instance, can make an intrinsically difficult argument far easier to understand. Secondly, the judges don’t nominate their own best and worst picks, thank goodness: we just consider entries sent in by the general public. In other words, if there’s a web site you find very easy or very difficult to understand – please nominate it for next year’s People’s Choice awards!

Sep 19, 2008 • Posted by rachel

You can easily see the entire web page and web site and judge for yourself. As you say, context matters.

Sep 19, 2008 • Posted by BMC

Of course you’re right Dave – neither of those sentences is unclear or hard to understand (maybe to 12 year old, but I can’t imagine too many of them need to find out the rules for fiancee visas :)).

But I think you can see from rachel’s post that the award wasn’t given for language, but for web usabilty. 11 of the 12 items on the list above are all about design, navigation, layout, etc. (rachel, please back me up or knock me down depending on whether I got this right :)

My ‘link colours’ pet peeve is the same, and rachel’s example of linking on ‘this’ is also good illustration. It’s too ‘plain English’ – ‘read this’ [link] is very plain english, it’s just bad form. They probably been more ‘goobledygooky’ and written ‘please refer to section A.b© of the Whatever-it-is Handbook [link]’.

And I’d say that’s the right reason to give an award for a website: Usability online is the equivalent of language in a hard copy document. It’s what’s going to cause ‘Brainstrain’.
After all, Pacifc Blue didn’t win their award for the fact that their condistions of carriage are printed in greyed out, 6pt if you’re lucky, block text on the back of your plane ticket.

And to take the counter example, all your ‘measures of quality’ are in place:

The line just before the quote tells you what a K-1 visa is
‘form I-129F’ is a link
behind that link you can both get the form and find which USCIS center will have jurisdiction (it’s on the form)

But I still say the award is well deserved for the terrible usability of the site: That (and a badly flickering monitor) is where online ‘brainstrain’ comes from.

Sep 21, 2008 • Posted by Steve

I agree with most of your points against that website… but I have to admit that it’s not any worse than most every government website I’ve seen. You could maybe point to the shining 5% of examples of good gov’t sites… but for every stinker you bring up I could point out to you three that were worse.

Sep 16, 2008 • Posted by rachel

There are some good US examples, I promise, among their 24,000 (!) .gov web sites. Members of the Government Web Management on Facebook mentioned these:
Social Security (www.ssa.gov), Inland Revenue (www.irs.gov), US Department of Agriculture (USDA.gov) and usa.gov. I reckon the Department of Housing and Urban Development site (www.hud.gov) has a lot going for it too. But the Embassy site deserves no praise.

Sep 17, 2008 • Posted by BMC

I don’t know – I’ve got to line up with Miraz on this one.

I think you needed to be more ambitious and give your award to at least all US Embassy sites. I’ve only checked a few (China, UK, Switzerland – places I would have thought they’d be putting in some effort), but they all seem to be using the same cms(?) or templates, and are at least as bad. They all have the same ugly design features, bad fonts, stupid navigation, popups, long pages, etc.

You missed my favourite from your list: The styles for their links. They’re not underlined, and the colours they’ve chosen for fresh and visited links mean you completely loose them inside text, even if you know that they’re there!

Interestingly, Iraq is completely different. Maybe that says a lot about where the Americans are spending their money. On the other hand I notice the weight of their home page clocks in at over 300k. I don’t know Iraq at all, but from what we see on the news they’ve only just got electricity, I have difficulty believing broadband is widespread.

And by the way, if Miraz can’t find the simple stuff he needs on the IRS site, then either he’s just a little slow :) or the IRS site ’ain’t all that’, regardless of what it says on Facebook.

Sep 19, 2008 • Posted by Dave

I don’t really see a problem with the two sentences you quote. I write lots of tech support documentation (read: making confusing software usable for the tech illiterate), and I find situations all the time that just aren’t easy to explain with short, simple sentences. I get the feeling, based on Miraz’s comments, that many visa situations are like that — just too complex to explain in tiny sentences. Maybe those sentences are easy for me to understand because I deal with complex topics like that on a daily basis.

The real measure of quality, for me, would be what comes after both of those quotes. For example, the first quote definitely should have links to things like “what is a K-1 visa?”, “download Form I-129F” (or complete online), “Jurisdiction areas for each USCIS Regional Service Center”, etc.

Sep 15, 2008 • Posted by Miraz Jordan

It’s actually worse than you describe, Rachel, though I think the problem lies deep within the US Government structures.

On every occasion I’ve attempted to find out what I need to do with regard to something in the US I’ve been thwarted by their websites.

A couple of years ago I co-authored a book for a US Publisher. I’ve never figured out how to sort out a tax status, which has led to an actual loss of income for me – it vanished somewhere between US and NZ taxes. Their IRS website is a nightmare.

In a few months I’m visiting Hawai’i to do some unpaid work. While trying to find out what was required for a Visa I spent hours fruitlessly going round in circles on the US Embassy site and several others it links to. Finally I had to ring Auckland (at $3 something per minute) to talk to someone at the Consulate, and now have to fly to Auckland for an interview.

I’ve found pretty well everything on all the US government sites I’ve visited to be incomprehensible at best, nightmarish at worst.

They well deserve their Brainstrain award!

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