Open, Accountable Government
E-Gov Spotlight: Centralized Product Recall Portal Needs Significant Improvements
by Peter Thomas, 11/19/2013
E-Gov Spotlights: Given the importance of websites and online tools to inform the public about major issues and government activities, the Center for Effective Government is publishing an ongoing series of articles to evaluate government's use of online technology. Each article explores the purpose of an agency's site or tool, its strengths and weaknesses, and offers recommendations on how their efforts might be enhanced.
The idea behind the U.S. government-run website Recalls.gov represents the best, most practical qualities of the Internet: to help consumers with valuable, timely, up-to-date recall information. Spanning six federal agencies, Recalls.gov aims to be a 'one-stop shop' for consumers concerned about the safety of the products they buy for themselves and their families. It is supposed to make finding recall information easy and efficient. However, the intentions of Recalls.gov are severely hampered by poor implementation, resulting in an unusable, inconvenient website.
Established in October 2003, Recalls.gov was designed to help protect consumers by providing a central location for information on a wide range of defective and potentially harmful products that have been recalled. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) manages the site but is only one of six participating federal agencies. The other agencies include the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Coast Guard. By spanning several federal agencies, the site intends to make it easier for people to find information about a recall since they may not know which federal agency oversees what products.
Using the Site
Recalls.gov offers two approaches to locate recall information. First, users are offered general browse and search tools on the left of the main screen. The "Recent Recalls" button takes users to real-time lists of the latest recall information, organized by product type. If a person had heard about a recall on the news but missed the details, this tool would give them quick access to the latest recall information. The "Search for Recalls" button takes users to a page with six different search forms, divided by agency, where a user can search for particular recalls.
Users can also sign up for e-mail alerts on recall announcements from four of the six participating agencies. This allows the user to customize their e-mail alerts, especially if they are only interested in one or two types of products and don't require updates from all Recalls.gov agencies. However, it seems users would have to sign up for every alert from each agency rather than being able to tailor the alerts they are interested in receiving. For instance, if a user were interested in receiving any recall notifications on the car he or she drives, the person would still have to subscribe to recall alerts for all vehicles, rather than just those for his or her car make or model. Some of the agencies, such as the CPSC, do offer some such customization, but users have to go to their websites to access these options.
The site allows users to select a consumer product category from a bar along the top of the website. The site offers seven categories: Consumer Products, Motor Vehicles, Boats, Food, Medicine, Cosmetics, and Environmental Products. Most of the category buttons take users to summary information that explains the scope of each issue and links to additional information on agencies' websites. For example, the Environmental Products category includes recalls of pesticides and fungicides, as well as vehicle emission testing results, and the links take users to EPA pages describing what pesticides are and providing information on vehicle emission recalls.
The site also allows users to download a Recalls.gov app for cell phones for individuals interested in accessing recall information while on the go, perhaps while shopping. The site provides a 'how-to' tutorial, explaining correct installation of the app on Android devices.
The greatest strength of Recalls.gov is its subject matter. Given the plethora of recall information handled by the federal government, a centralized location for consumers to easily access such information is a great public good.
Parts of the website are easy to use. For instance, signing up for e-mail alerts and downloading the mobile app are quite easy. Both are accessible from the main page and are clearly labeled.
The site should also be commended for providing an option to switch to a Spanish version. Federal agencies are well aware that a sizable portion of the public does not speak English, and providing language alternatives is the only way to truly make this consumer information public.
Unfortunately, Recalls.gov suffers from major problems with its user interface and layout. The site is overly fragmented both in its layout and its tools. For instance, when accessing the "Recent Recalls" section, the user is left staring at nine different text-heavy boxes, divided by agency and product type. With small font sizes and hard-to-understand text, the consumer who doesn't know which agency to look at or where to find the product sought is at a loss. The site would be much better with a single, real-time feed with search and browse tools to help users more quickly locate the most relevant recent recalls.
The site's search functionality does not help users locate recall information easily. The main search tool has six different search boxes, forcing users to search agencies one at a time. The search results reflect a query of the agency's general website, rather than a limited search of recall data. And there is no search capability at all for the "Recent Recalls" section. A central search form should be set up that allows the user to search recall data from all six agencies, with the option of narrowing the search by product type, agency, or time frame.
The product categories navigation option fails to provide helpful filters on Recalls.gov and instead quickly shifts users to agency pages. Users cannot easily locate recall information from these category pages. Instead, the consumer is left to go from "door to door" between agencies. The category pages should be reworked to provide information on recalls in general; history or statistics; laws, rules, regulations governing the recall process; or even how a product gets recalled. The pages should also provide feeds of recent recalls of related products and information on how to file product complaints.
The mobile application receives consistently bad user reviews on the Google Play store. Complaints repeat phrases like "not working at all" and "absolutely useless." Reworking the application to function effectively should be a major goal.
Finally, the site lacks standard tools to assist users such as a sitemap and FAQ or help section. The Spanish version of the site also appears to be less organized and somewhat truncated compared to the English version. These fundamental tools and functions need to either be added or fixed for users to get the full benefit of the site.
Even with the site's many flaws, Recalls.gov's solid foundation and lofty potential make it worth investing the time and effort into addressing its shortcomings. The potential benefits of a centralized recall website to consumers are obvious.
As the site administrator, CPSC should carry out a major interface upgrade and add in substantive changes. Initial efforts should focus on establishing a more efficient, user-friendly site design. This would include establishing a sitemap for easy navigation, an FAQ to address common consumer concerns, and more accessible agency contact information. Forms to submit questions, information regarding faulty products, or even discussion boards could serve to facilitate greater website functionality and interactivity.
The site also needs substantive changes. Most importantly, it should have more information from each agency immediately available on the site itself instead of requiring users to leave the site and go to agency websites. Either the information needs to be added to Recalls.gov, or the agencies need to structure it such that Recalls.gov can pull the information from datafeeds. This will be critical to making Recalls.gov and its mobile application more functional and easy to use.