We are constantly working to improve Congress.gov, and regularly conduct usability testing on the site as part of this effort. We recently looked at the variety of ways in which you search the site. Congress.gov has many searches, from the simple Google-style box on the home page to the complex Query Builder search, each with its own strengths.
This search ecosystem allows for very targeted and nuanced searching on the activities of the U.S. Congress. But we wanted to know how is it working for people? To find out, we tested 20 people, including professional users (lawyers, lobbyists, archivists and other legislation watchers) and Hill staff. We watched our subjects do typical searches, then asked them to do eight common tasks involving searching. Along the way, we had lots of conversation about what users were doing and why, which gave us tremendous insight into the search experience on Congress.gov. We also have some tips to make your searching easier.
Here’s what we learned:
Overall, public users liked Congress.gov very much and said it was better than other search engines they use for keeping track of legislation.
The main search on the home page is the go-to search for most users, and the default of searching in the current Congress works well.
We discovered that better labeling of the other searches on Congress.gov would help users find the right search for their needs more easily. For example, people thought the main search on the home page was the “Quick” search and the search labeled “Quick” was an “Advanced” search. The “Browse” option has a lot of very useful predefined searches and information, but the people we tested didn’t know what they would find there. We saw users hunting for “trigger words” on the home page to help them find the right search.
A note to our readers: let us know below if you have any suggestions for labels that would better convey the search options to users.
TIP: Check out Browse, which has a lot of useful information compiled by legislative experts.
TIP: You can also search in Members, Committees, the Congressional Record, Nominations, Treaties and Executive Documents, and Executive Communications from the drop-down menu under Current Legislation.
When it came to search results, people preferred to see more rather than less information for each result. That is, they preferred more detail for each search result, including the tracker (which continues to be very popular), and they wanted to see the filters. The ability to filter results is an important part of users’ search strategy.
The biggest frustration for all users is receiving too many search results. Unlike searching on Google, where people will look at a few results and move on, people searching for legislative information on Congress.gov tend to feel obligated to look at ALL the results they get. The more they get, the more they have to look at. The search logic could be adjusted to generate more targeted results.
TIP: If you use ” ” around a phrase, it will keep your phrase together in a search. For example, “managed care” finds only managed care (fewer results), while managed care finds all instances of managed and all instances of care (more results).
Other findings: Users had kudos for the Glossary. They said they didn’t know what “Tools” meant, so they didn’t click on the link, and people said they’d set up accounts if they understood the benefit of accounts.
Are you interested in doing some user testing on Congress.gov? We’d love to hear from you. To participate in an online test of the search options, follow this link.