by Deb Sellars
The Excellence in Usability Award is given each year to recognize outstanding work in the field of usability. This year’s recipient is Gail Hughes and the Innovations Team of the Department of Labor and Industries, State of Washington for their efforts in communicating government regulations clearly and simply.
The State of Washington’s General Safety and Health Rules, which must be referred to and followed by most employers within the state, were embedded within two volumes of rules. As each volume was approximately 1000 pages long, it was difficult for small, non-manufacturing companies—which comprise approximately 90 percent of the employers—to determine what the basic safety and health requirements were for their businesses.
The primary causes for poor usability included:
- No intuitive organizational structure to the content of the rules,
- Unfriendly look to the documents using an outline form with multiple levels of indentation that went on and on,
- Text not written in plain English,
- Use of technical terms not generally understood by the public at large,
- Not divided into easily-identified categories, and
- No clear delineation between the requirements and “helpful” information.
Gail Hughes, manager of the Innovations Team, was the initial person in what became a twelve-person team responsible for this project. The goals are to make the rules available to every employer and employee in the state in an easy-to-read and use format and to raise the awareness of worker safety and health. The approach was to take the rules defining workplace safety and health regulations and make those rules understandable to the majority of the employers—the 80 percent who have fewer than ten employees and are not involved in manufacturing.
Because the rules were too numerous to be reformed in one effort, a book of core rules was developed. These core rules apply to most businesses in Washington state, and cover almost everything small, non-manufacturing employers need for a safe and healthful workplace. (For more information about how the core rules were selected and the process for reforming them, see “Usability in Government Regulations”, Capital Letter, April 2002, www.stcdc.org/newsletter.shtml)
When they began writing the core rules in plain language, the initial plan was to develop a paper document. However, as they continued to think of ways to make the document most accessible and useful, an interactive, online document made sense. An interactive web-based version of the rules was developed in parallel and can be found at www.lni.wa.gov/wisha/corerules/.
Significant improvement was seen almost immediately! They conducted a couple of different usability studies in the early draft stage to get feedback. The response was largely that this was the right direction. A major usability study in the latter part of the effort with the same response.
The complete project is a six- to eight-year effort. The Core Rules was the first piece and is considered the foundation for all the other rules. The Core Rules are available on the web site, and the team is in the development stages of a web design/usability effort to come up with the best design for putting the rules on the web.