by James Mathews, Senior Web Writer, National Cancer Institute
Last month, in an ongoing effort to substantially improve the effectiveness and efficiency of federal government health information on the World Wide Web, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) developed a comprehensive set of Web-design guidelines based on research studies in the field. The Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines represent a year of intense effort by NCI to identify Web design-related research and compile a practical set of guidelines. The guidelines, located on NCI’s Usability.gov Web site (http://usability.gov/guidelines), will be used primarily by Web masters and designers throughout the government to improve online services.
“With more and more patients, researchers, and the general public seeking health information online, it is critical that NCI and other government Web sites be highly intuitive, easy-to-use and accessible to the public,” said Janice Nall, chief of NCI’s Communication Technologies Branch. “If we are to realize our goal of reducing the cancer burden on the nation and building a healthier, better informed America, then the ‘business as usual’ approach to online health communications must change. Far too much time and money has already been spent designing, then re-designing Web sites that aren’t effective in helping the public access health and scientific information.”
Currently, NCI maintains approximately 130 Web sites across the institute, managed by over 50 Web masters. When factoring in all health agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, that number rises significantly to approximately 2,000 Web sites managed by over 400 Web masters.
The guidelines will complement the NCI’s popular Usability.gov Web site, which was launched earlier this year. While originally designed to help NCI staff
improve the presentation of cancer-related information to cancer researchers and the public, both Usability.gov and the Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines are applicable to anyone who designs and manages information Web sites.
“For the first time, a comprehensive list has been compiled that bases its conclusions on available research results, not best guesses,” said Susan Sieber, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Office of Communications. “While there are various Web guidelines that offer advice, that advice is often based on designers’ preferences rather than solid research into what works best for users.”
The guidelines-more than 50 in all-will replace the existing Web design and Usability Guidelines that NCI published in 1999. The guidelines include basic do’s and don’ts on content development, font size, navigation issues, and download time, among other topics. In addition, they include a grading system that ranks the strength of current research.
Leading the development of the guidelines in NCI’s Office of Communication is the Communication Technologies Branch. The branch was established last year to help NCI improve the effectiveness of its Web sites and other communication technologies. As more research is analyzed and becomes available, NCI plans to build upon the guidelines and eventually publish a larger set of approximately 400 research-based guidelines