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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
Organize Content and Simplify Navigation

The Basics

This section discusses two important concepts:

Content Organization (also called Information Architecture)—Information architecture is the way information is categorized on a Web site. It typically involves a category structure (taxonomy) and labels. For example, think of browsing through a bookstore. Clearly labeled sections (Mystery, Nonfiction, Teen, Business) help you find what you're looking for. Good content organization helps users find information quickly.

Navigation—Navigation refers to how users move through the pages of your Web site. Elements of navigation include menus, tabs, headings, breadcrumbs, site maps, and "back" or "next" buttons.

Keep content organization and navigation simple and consistent. Users are typically topic-focused.7,13 Organize and label your content according to your users' needs, and use terms that are familiar to them.

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4.1. Create a simple and engaging home page.

The home page should be an easy entry point to the content on your Web site. Research indicates that Web users with limited literacy skills have difficulty processing multiple concepts at the same time.3–5 Include as few elements as possible on the home page.

Exhibit 12

Exhibit 12. Caption follows.

White space and short links create a clean home page on

  • A useful home page is mostly links and short descriptions.7,13 Use white space and large buttons.
  • Limit the amount of text on the home page.13
  • If you include information in more than one language, link to the non-English sections right from the home page.

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4.2. Use labels that reflect words your users know.

Use the words of your Web users, rather than technical or "catchy" terms.7 This enables users to find content more quickly.

People have different mental models (methods) for grouping health information.20,34 To help different users find what they need, repeat topics under multiple categories. For example, based on card sorting, content on mammograms appears under three categories on Cancer, Women, and Screening.

Exhibit 13

Exhibit 13. Caption follows.

This Web page from the Office on Women's Health includes a navigation bar with audience-appropriate category labels (the site is for girls aged 10 to 16). For example, the mental health section is labeled "your feelings."

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4.3. Enable easy access to home and menu pages.

Include large buttons that take users back to the home page or the main menu pages on the site.13,18,19 Web users with limited literacy skills typically don't use breadcrumbs.13,18

  • Avoid drop-down menus, especially those that require internal scrolling.
  • Use a clear lefthand navigation menu. Indicate where users are in relation to the rest of the site.13,18-20

NIH SeniorHealth uses a strong lefthand navigation menu. The current section is highlighted with a different color in the navigation bar so users can easily see where they are in the site.

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4.4. Make sure the "Back" button works.

Web users with limited literacy skills often depend on the "Back" button to navigate a Web site.21 Make sure this button works predictably and consistently.

  • If users are entering data into a registration page or form, ensure that the information does not get deleted when users select the "Back" button.

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4.5. Use linear information paths.

Using linear navigation (numbered pages) helps Web users with limited literacy skills move through the content on your Web site.12,16,17 Linear navigation can be combined with tabs (typically running horizontally across the top of the page) to organize content and simplify navigation.

The Quick Guide to Healthy Living uses tabs to organize content (Overview, The Basics, Take Action). Within each tabbed section, pages are numbered so users can move easily through the content.

Linear information paths move users through a topic using a series of pages or screens. Each topic on the site has its own linear path. The content progresses from general to more specific.

I like that you can click on the page numbers at the bottom and go directly to other pages.

Allow users to move easily from page to page by providing "Next" and "Back" buttons as well as clickable page numbers at the top or bottom of each screen.3,13,15,16,18,20

On this Web page from NIH SeniorHealth, the "Next Page" button is large and clearly labeled.

On the first page of each topic, give the user a short overview of the content. Provide a link to each subsection for users who wish to skip directly to a specific section.

The Overview tab on this Web page gives a brief summary of the content and links users directly to the section that interests them.

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4.6. Include simple search and browse options.

Many users with limited literacy skills will browse through categories of content rather than use a search box.4,5,16,19 This may be because these users:

  • Don't see the search box (many users with limited experience on the Web don't know where to look for a search box)
  • Are worried about spelling mistakes
  • Are overwhelmed by search results
  • Include multiple ways to browse for topics (for example, by topic category and using an A to Z list).
Exhibit 18

Exhibit 18. Caption follows.

The NIH SeniorHealth Web site allows users to search for health information by topic categories or an A to Z list. Note that some letters (in black) aren't linked to anything; they are still included so that users see a familiar alphabet.

During usability testing, some users with limited literacy skills clicked a "search" button without entering any terms in the search box.15 Consider using the "search" label together with a "get started" or "go" button. This will help signal to users that they must first enter a term(s) and then submit or "go."

  • When designing a search function, use a large text box with obvious buttons.
Exhibit 19

Exhibit 19. Caption follows.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Web site's Search box is clearly labeled and has an obvious "go" button to submit the search request.

Here are three rules to follow when designing a search function:

  1. Allow for common misspellings.4,13
  2. When displaying search results, limit the number of results displayed on a page. Use numbered pages to avoid scrolling.4,13 Use white space and a large font.
  3. Use clear page titles and include a brief plain-language description of each result.4,13 Avoid using long URLs in search results, if possible.

This search results Web page from MedlinePlus displays clear titles and short URLs for the linked results. A brief description written in plain language appears above the top results. Only 10 results show per page.

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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 group the content on your Web site into categories. Once you have initial categories established (sometimes called a "seed structure"), conduct another round of user testing to confirm the structure. Have participants suggest labels for the categories.
  • If resources are tight, build a limited prototype of the home page and a few secondary navigation pages. This should be enough to test with users to determine whether the content is organized well.
Icon for usability guidelines.

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

2:13; 5:1; 5:2; 5:4; 5:5; 5:7; 7:1; 7:4; 7:12; 8:1; 8:4; 13:11; 16:4; 16:5; 17:1; 17:4; 17:5; 17:6

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