According to figures published by the GSA in 2007, FBO.gov was sending out 500,000 emails every day to users who asked to be notified about opportunities matching their specified search critieria. That’s half a million messages a day that look like this:

All right, show of hands: who among you is getting search agent email updates from FedBizOpps? Anyone?

And keep your hands up if you find them useful? Uh, anyone?

There are two major problems that I can see with the way these emails are currently structured. First of all, in many cases there’s just not enough information provided in the emails for the receiver to determine whether the opportunity is a match or at least worth a closer look. The only line that really tells a human being what the opportunity is about is the title which is often filled with generic, non-descriptive text or something completely out of place like the solicitation number, the name of the agency, the name of the contracting officer’s cat, etc. A better template might include part of the opportunity description text — ideally including instances of any keywords matched by the search agent along with some of the surrounding text. At the very least, it should include the NAICS code or classification code or both to provide the reader with some further indication of the general domain the opportunity relates to.

Secondly, and many might not see this as a problem, the text-only emails are more than a little hard to look at. As a programmer myself, I completely understand why the developers chose to do what they did. At the time when these emails were designed and created, getting nicely formatted HTML email to display the same in all the various email readers that might be in use was damn hard, even for experts, and so rather than devote a lot of time and budget to the task, they chose the simplest possible plain-text format – something that they knew would work and was future-proof. It’s important to understand, though, that the issue I’m raising here isn’t just about aesthetics; it’s about effectiveness.

Design can be used to make things look pretty, but done properly, it can also be a tool for reducing the reader’s workload by drawing attention to the most important things first. Web designers have spent the past 20 years (and artists and designers and publishers for decades and centuries before that) have trained us to search for visual cues when gathering information about a page – changes in color, typeface, indentation, etc.

The difference here is between legibility and readability: the original FedBizOpps format is very legible, but it’s not especially readable.

So having said all that, I’ve put together a quick initial mockup BetterFBO’s take on email notifications.

The design shows some key decisions that I’ve made in designing the alerts:

  1. HTML-formatted emails will be sent by default. Users who want or need it will be able update their profiles to receive plain-text formatted email.
  2. The header information for each opportunity in the list is set off from the rest of the text for better readability.
  3. The contracting agency is represented graphically for easy scanning.
  4. The relevance of each matching opportunity to the user’s search is indicated through the inclusion of a score in the upper-righthand corner of each listing.
  5. The body of each item consists of a selection of text from the opportunity description. If the user’s search agent included search keywords, these will be highlighted in the body with some additional context both before and after each appearance.
  6. Detailed meta-information about high-value data attributes is organized at the bottom of each entry and will include details like important dates, set-aside, and other categorizations.

There are still a number of design decisions yet to be made before BetterFBO starts sending out notifications and a lot of back end code to be written, but many of these are probably related to the relative importance of different opportunity data elements instead of the general theme of using formatting and more information to allow users to make better and quicker decisions right from their inboxes.

If you have any input or feedback on what you see here, leave a comment or drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you!

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