Informing Users about Major Changes
What It Is
Informing your visitors of major website changes is a best practice for managing your agency’s website. When your website undergoes changes that may affect the public's ability to locate information, such as a website redesign, help your visitors locate information in the new format by explaining the changes. If you change your primary URL, or URL for any of your popular pages, notify the staff at USA.gov so they can update the link to your website and update it in the USA.gov search index. This will help more people find your pages.
Why It’s Important
- Repeat visitors are familiar with a website's navigation and appearance and can get confused if a website changes. Explaining the changes will help them find what they need more quickly.
- Since many government agencies link to each other, it's important to keep URLs current, or provide redirect pages, so content on other government websites also stays current.
This is not a specific requirement. However, there are two sections of the OMB Policies for Federal Agency Public Websites that refer to the need to communicate with the public and help them find the information they’re looking for:
- Section 2A: “disseminate information to the public in a timely, equitable, efficient and appropriate manner”
- Section 5A: “assist the public in locating government information.”
How to Implement
There are a number of ways to inform the public about changes to the website, both before and after changes have been made.
- Notification: You should provide some sort of notice to users when you make major changes. The method for notifying the public will depend on the magnitude of changes.
- What’s Considered a “Major Change”?
- Changes to your organization's root domain name, such as changing from "www.bcis.gov” to www.uscis.gov
- URL changes for frequently visited pages (such as those that occur when a page is removed, renamed, or placed in a different location within the website)
- A new navigational or organizational structure
- Redesign—a complete change to your site’s "look and feel" and navigation scheme
- For redesigns, include a notice on your homepage to inform users about the new design and how it will impact their ability to find information.
- Keep in mind that research and usability testing indicates that full-scale website redesigns are not always as effective in meeting the needs of customers as making incremental changes, and thus should be undertaken after careful consideration. Read related article about redesigns by Jared Spool.
- Domain Name and Page URL Changes:
- Minimize URL changes: It’s important to minimize changes, especially for frequently visited pages, since many websites may link to those URLs and those pages may be bookmarked by lots of people.
- Provide lots of help: If you must change a significant number of page URLs at one time (for example, as part of a redesign or conversion to an automated content management system), provide as many ways as possible for visitors to locate the new page locations.
- Redirects: When you change a domain name or an individual page URL, insert a "redirect" notice that will automatically take visitors to the new URL.
- Notify USA.gov: Since organization domain names are widely known and part of an organization's identity and branding, communicate any changes to as wide an audience as possible. Be sure to notify staff at USA.gov, the U.S. government's official Web portal. It's important to provide as much notice as possible so the new URL(s) are correctly identified in USA.gov's government-wide domain directory and in the USA.gov search index.
- FCC — The FCC blogged about their site redesign and encouraged citizens to share comments in their forum. Since the April 2011 launch of the new design, they have also maintained a transition site.
- CDC — The week of April 16, 2007, CDC launched a new home page and second-level pages. The new CDC.gov home page provides easier access to information on the CDC.gov Web site and includes many new features, as well as a virtual tour. The organization, navigation, terminology, and graphic design are based on extensive user evaluation and research.
- GSA — As part of its redesign in 2003, GSA posted an article explaining its new features. It also alerted visitors before the new website was launched, telling them what they could expect with the new website.