Consumer Product Safety Commission:

Awareness, Use, and Usefulness of SaferProducts.gov

GAO-13-306: Published: Mar 11, 2013. Publicly Released: Mar 11, 2013.

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Alicia P. Cackley
(202) 512-8678
cackleya@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has used various approaches to inform the public about SaferProducts.gov, including using social media, public service announcements, and printed materials, and promoting the site during speeches and events. CPSC's efforts to inform the public about SaferProducts.gov have been part of a larger effort to raise awareness about the agency as a whole. While CPSC has employed many key practices for consumer education planning, it has not established metrics for measuring the success of its efforts. Without such metrics, the agency cannot determine which efforts have had the most impact on increasing awareness and use of the site.

While CPSC collects some data on the category of persons, such as consumers or health care professionals, who submit reports (one of the main functions of the site), it does not collect data about who is using the site to search for information (the other main function). In addition, to minimize the reporting burden on users, CPSC has not asked for demographic data about the users (such as their age, gender, or income level). Therefore, it was difficult for GAO to assess, as mandated by Congress, whether a broad range of the public has used the site. Moreover, without such data, CPSC has been limited in its ability to target its marketing and outreach efforts to increase use of the site.

Many consumers in GAO's usability tests thought the site generally was easy to use and had helpful information, but identified areas for improvement. The consumers generally could perform basic searches and follow instructions to report an unsafe product, and although none were aware of the site before the tests, most said they would use the site again. However, some of the search functions posed challenges. In addition, some consumers expressed concern about registering with the site and said this might prevent them from completing a report. Other consumers were not clear about the site's purpose, thinking it would focus on safe rather than unsafe products. By addressing the usability challenges GAO identified, CPSC could help users take full advantage of all the available features of SaferProducts.gov. Furthermore, cost-effective federal resources exist across the government to help agencies improve the usefulness of their sites.

Why GAO Did This Study

In the wake of increased product recalls in 2007-2008, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA). Among other things, CPSIA required CPSC to establish a database on the safety of consumer products that is publicly available, searchable, and accessible through the CPSC website. In response, CPSC launched SaferProducts.gov (http:// www.saferproducts.gov) in March 2011, which has two main functions--to provide (1) a mechanism for online reporting of product safety issues and (2) the ability to search for these issues or others, such as recalls. CPSIA also required GAO to study the general utility of the website. This report examines (1) CPSC's efforts to inform the public about SaferProducts.gov, (2) who is using the website and to what extent, and (3) the extent to which consumers have found the website to be useful. To do this, GAO analyzed agency documents and data from 2011 to 2012; interviewed CPSC officials, researchers, and consumer and industry groups; reviewed federal standards, guidance, and best practices for website usability; and conducted website usability tests with 37 consumers in three locations.

What GAO Recommends

CPSC should (1) establish and incorporate metrics to assess efforts to increase awareness and use of SaferProducts.gov, (2) look for cost-effective ways of gathering additional data about site use, and (3) implement cost-effective usability improvements to the site. CPSC supported these recommendations.

For more information, contact Alicia Puente Cackley at (202) 512-8678 or cackleya@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Commission states that it measures overall awareness of SaferProducts.gov in a manner similar to the manner in which it measures the awareness of the Commission's primary website CPSC.gov: by the number of visits to the website. The Commission also states that website visits is a reasonable proxy measure of overall awareness that is cost-effective to collect. Since we reported in 2013, the Commission now collects data that enables them to measure and analyze web traffic. In 2016, the Commission launched a social media campaign on Twitter to promote SaferProducts.gov and make the public aware they can report unsafe products online. According to the Commission, in calendar year 2017, SaferProducts.gov had 1.8 million visits and 1.3 million visitors. Moreover, the number of searches conducted in calendar year 2017 was about 732,000. In addition to these metrics, the Commission is able to assess the number of incidents reported, the top pages visited, visitor acquisition information (meaning how a visitor was directed to the SaferProducts.gov site, such as, through social media), visitor geographic information, device type and top 10 database search terms. Additionally, in its fiscal year 2017 annual performance report, the Commission included a strategic goal for communication, which included two strategic objectives related to our recommendation: (1) improve usefulness and availability of consumer product safety information and (2) increase dissemination of useful consumer product safety information. For example, one key performance measure was to track the percentage of positive responses about the usefulness of information received from the Commission's communication channels and another was to track the number of CPSC social media safety messages with which stakeholders engage. Each of these key performance measures included baseline data for 2017 with the goal to set performance targets in future years. By taking steps to establish metrics and assess the awareness, use, and usefulness of SaferProducts.gov, the Commission can be better positioned to understand who is visiting the site, for how long, and what outreach may be directing the visitor to the site.

    Recommendation: To improve the awareness, use, and usefulness of SaferProducts.gov, the CPSC should establish and incorporate metrics to assess efforts to increase awareness and use of SaferProducts.gov.

    Agency Affected: Consumer Product Safety Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Commission reports that staff explored technologies that are available to conduct measurement and analysis of website usage. In May 2015, staff began using a new analytics tool (Google Analytics), which gives them the ability to measure and analyze web traffic. This tool allows staff to identify first-time visitors, unique visitors, which site referral page visitors come from, bounce rate, and how long a visitor spends on a page. The Commission reports that it is collecting and using this data to assist in future improvements to the website.

    Recommendation: To improve the awareness, use, and usefulness of SaferProducts.gov, the CPSC should look for cost-effective ways of gathering additional data about the users and their use of SaferProducts.gov.

    Agency Affected: Consumer Product Safety Commission

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Commission has taken some steps to address this recommendation by making usability improvements to SaferProducts.gov that we identified in our consumer testing in our report. For example, in 2015, the Commission addressed issues identified with the search functionality of the website by improving the advanced search function to enable searches by injury, time period, and location. In August 2018, the Commission clarified the purpose of SaferProducts.gov by adding the tagline (brief text that gives users an immediate idea of what the site does) "Report. Search. Protect." to its website. As of August 2019, CPSC has explored further ways to improve the usability of SaferProducts.gov. Specifically, in February 2019, CPSC published a request for information from the public on how to improve SaferProducts.gov. In March 2019, CPSC held a public hearing to obtain a feedback on how the design of SaferProducts.gov and process of submitting safety reports could be improved. For example, two consumer groups recommended that CPSC further improve the website's search function to yield more relevant and streamlined results and that it be designed for better use on mobile devices. Based on this input, CPSC is in the process of developing a plan for re-designing SaferProducts.gov using modern web-design standards, which includes improving the website's layout and styling, search capabilities, and functionality on mobile devices. According to CPSC, its staff plans to explore cost-effective resources to assess usability and identify further improvements to the website, such as coordinating with the General Services Administration on the design aspects of SaferProducts.gov and using other federal best practices to inform this process. However, no such cost-effective changes have yet been made to the website. According to officials, CPSC plans to begin this re-design in 2019 or 2020 pending available future funding. Until the Commission fully addresses this recommendation, it remains open. We will continue to monitor the Commission's progress in implementing our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the awareness, use, and usefulness of SaferProducts.gov, the CPSC should implement cost-effective usability improvements to SaferProducts.gov, taking into account the results of any existing usability testing or any new testing CPSC may choose to conduct.

    Agency Affected: Consumer Product Safety Commission

 

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