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U.S. Department of Health and Health Services
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Health Literacy Online: A Guide to Writing and Designing Easy-to-Use Health Web Sites
Write Actionable Content

The Basics

Writing for the Web is different than writing for print. Most Web users are looking for specific information or an answer to a question.7 They typically don't stay very long on one page (the average time on a home page is about 27 seconds).7,35

When it comes to health information, users want to quickly and easily:

  • Understand the health problem or behavior
  • Find out how to take action14,16,36

Content is the most important element of your Web site.7,13 Aim for health content that is:

  • Brief and to the point
  • Actionable and engaging

"Actionable" means you are focusing on health behavior. Tell users what you want them to do and how to do it.

Engagement is the process of involving users in health content in a way that motivates them to take action. Interactive tools and checklists are examples of engaging content. When applied to online health information, high levels of engagement can lead to health behavior change.37

Take note: Plain language is not enough. If you want your users to adopt healthy behaviors, you must write actionable health content. Plain language alone will not get you to your desired outcome.

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2.1. Put the most important information first.13

Many users with limited literacy read only the first few words on a page or paragraph. If they think the content will be easy to get through, they may keep reading. If they think it might be too difficult, they will skip to a different spot on the page.4,5,14,16,18,20,38

This NHLBI Diseases and Conditions Index Web page puts the most important information about this lung disease—just the basics—first. Additional information about lung function comes later.

In card-sorting exercises, Web users with limited literacy skills prioritized the following types of health information as most useful:

  • Basics I need to know (Understanding)
  • I would like to learn more (Assessment)
  • I can do this (Overcoming Barriers)
  • How will this help me? (Motivators)
  • Ways I can take action (Strategies)
  • Where can I go for help? (Community Resources)

Common comments from users included:

Just tell me what I need to know.

Get my attention. Then get to the point.

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2.2. Describe the health behavior—just the basics.

Start by introducing the prevention behavior. Users want specific behavioral guidance.16,17,19,21,34 In other words, tell users what to do and how to do it. Focus on behavior rather than background information and statistics.

Health information does not need to be comprehensive. Instead, usability research has shown that many users prefer to learn "just the basics" about a health topic.36 What do your users need to know to take action? Keep your information direct and to the point.

  • Make your information actionable and specific.


Instead of:
Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of your arteries. Blood pressure should be checked often.

Start with:
Check your blood pressure every 2 years, especially if you are age 40 or older.

The first sentence on this page from includes the behavioral recommendation (regular screenings after age 50).

I like this Web site because it gives you the information you want right away. It gives you the basics, not too much to read.

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2.3. Stay positive and realistic. Include the benefits of taking action.

Users overwhelmingly prefer a positive tone. During card-sorting exercises, in addition to basic health information, users prioritized information on motivators and overcoming barriers to behavior change over information on risks and barriers.12,14,19,21,23,25,36,39

  • Tell users what they can gain from adopting the desired behavior.

This Web page clearly lists the social, physical, and financial benefits of quitting smoking, instead of focusing on the risks and consequences of continuing to smoke.

Be positive. Instead of telling people what not to do, give them positive reasons to change their behavior.

Losing just 10 pounds can help lower my blood pressure? I didn't know that.

  • Limit the use of the following words when writing health recommendations:
  • Don't
  • Unless
  • Not
  • Should

People must overcome many perceived and actual barriers on the road to health behavior change. It's important to acknowledge these barriers and offer encouragement and motivation.40

  • Focus on tips and tools for overcoming barriers rather than on the barriers themselves. Be realistic.


If you don't have time to exercise for 30 minutes at once, try to get moving for shorter 10-minute periods throughout the day. Remember: It's not all or nothing. Ten minutes of exercise is better than none!

My favorite part [about the Web site] is that the suggestions applied to me.

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2.4. Provide specific action steps.

Give users the tools they need to get started. Users gravitate toward action steps, especially things they can do immediately.16,17,19,21,34

  • Instead of telling users what to do, tell them how to do it.

Breaking behaviors down into smaller steps improves users' self-efficacy.16,17,19,21,34 Self-efficacy is an individual's judgment of his or her ability to succeed in reaching a specific goal. Self-efficacy is an important predictor of health behavior.40,41 Breaking behaviors into smaller steps gives users choices about which steps feel realistic and doable.

  • Include steps users can take immediately.

This Web page uses a Start Today box with specific action steps. These steps are concrete and easy to achieve.

  • As part of your action steps, engage users with interactive content such as menu planners, printable checklists, and questions to ask a doctor (see Strategy 5).

This is good information because a lot of times, I take information to the doctor and ask questions about diet issues, what to avoid, and medications.

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2.5. Write in plain language.

Keep paragraphs and sentences short and simple. Use language that is familiar to your users.4,7,12–15,18

Use familiar language and an active voice. Writing in an active voice means that the subject of your sentence performs the action. An active sentence is easier to understand and generally requires fewer words.3,7,13,38


Check your blood pressure every 2 years.


Blood pressure should be checked every 2 years.

  • Use everyday examples to explain medical or technical concepts, and write in a conversational tone. Use words and images that users can relate to.


When you get a mammogram, the nurse will place your breasts between two plastic plates and take a picture of each breast.

  • When introducing a medical term, clearly define the term the first time you use it. Define the word in context rather than use a glossary or scroll-over definition.


If you have high blood pressure, you may need treatment. High blood pressure is 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) or higher. The medical term for high blood pressure is hypertension.

I like [this Web site] because it’s easy for everyday people like me to read. No big words or medical terms.

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2.6. Check content for accuracy.

Have a subject matter expert or panel periodically review your health content for accuracy.

  • Indicate the date the content was last reviewed and the reviewer's name and contact information. This gives your content more credibility with Web users.

The date the content was last reviewed, as well as the name and contact information of the reviewer, is clearly displayed on this Web page from the Office on Women's Health.

  • Use a style guide to keep your content consistent.

A style guide is a document that lays out the rules for writing content for a specific Web site. A style guide can help you keep track of grammar, spelling, and writing preferences. (For example, is it "Web site" or "website"?)

You also can use a style guide to keep track of headings and font size.

A style guide should be an evolving document. Writers and editors will likely add to it over time. Be sure to keep it easily accessible.

Try it icon

Keep a style guide online as a wiki, a Web site that allows for the easy creation and editing of Web documents via a Web browser.

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Iterative Design Methods and Tips


  • Card sorting
  • Prototypes
  • Usability testing

Tips for designing and testing your Web site with users

  • Use card sorting to find out how users rank content by most to least useful or most to least likely to do.
  • Build a paper prototype to find out what content users are most likely to "click" on.
  • Test user comprehension using content in a paper prototype (see Section 6.3).
Icon for usability guidelines.

Refer to Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines (PDF, 20.64 MB) sections:

1:1; 2:5; 15:1–5; 15:7; 15:9–11

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