4. Organize Content and Simplify Navigation


This section discusses 2 important concepts related to the structure of a website on devices of every size.

Content Organization (also called Information Architecture) is the way information is categorized on a website. It typically involves a category structure (taxonomy) and labels. Think about browsing through a bookstore—clearly labeled sections (like Mystery, Nonfiction, and so forth) help you find what you’re looking for. Good content organization helps users find information quickly.

Navigation refers to how users move through the pages of your website. Elements of navigation include menus, tabs, headers, breadcrumbs, sitemaps, and “Back” or “Next” buttons.

It’s important to keep content organization and navigation simple and consistent. Users are typically topic focused.24,30 Organize and label your content according to your users’ needs, and make sure you use terms that are familiar to them.

4.1 Create a simple and engaging homepage.

Research tells us that web users with limited literacy skills have a hard time processing more than 1 concept at a time,7,34,50 so make sure your homepage is a simple, focused entry point to the content on your site. This is also valuable when designing for mobile—or even better, responsive—websites.

Keep your homepage as simple as possible.

Limit the amount of text on the homepage.30

Figure 4.1

In usability testing, limited-literacy users were more successful using healthfinder.gov’s mobile-optimized homepage because it had fewer distractions than the desktop version.

Screenshot of healthfinder.gov on a desktop computer and mobile phone.

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/

A useful homepage is mostly links and short descriptions.24,30 Well-designed homepages include lots of white space and large buttons.

Figure 4.2

The smokefree.gov website is simple—it doesn’t have too much text, it’s made up of mostly buttons to get users to more content, and it has a large search feature.

Screenshot of smokefree.gov homepage

Source: http://smokefree.gov/

If you include information in more than 1 language, link to the non-English sections directly from the homepage. It’s also important to link to non-English sections from a universal menu bar—that way, if users find your content using a search engine, they’ll be able to find additional non-English content.

4.2 Label and organize content with your users in mind.

Use words your users know instead of technical or “catchy” terms.24 Remember, your goal is to help users find what they need as quickly as possible.

Figure 4.3

This page from the Office on Women’s Health includes a navigation bar with audience-appropriate category labels (the site is for girls ages 10 to 16). For example, the mental health section is labeled “your feelings,” rather than a technical term.

Screenshot of girlshealth.gov homepage

Source: http://www.girlshealth.gov/

People have different mental models (methods) for grouping health information.36,40 To help different users find what they need, repeat topics under multiple categories. For example, based on card sorting, content on mammograms appears under 3 categories on healthfinder.gov: Cancer, Women, and Doctor Visits.

Try this

Next time you need to prioritize, rank, or organize types of content on your site, try card sorting with your users.

Card sorting is a user-centered design technique used to organize content intuitively. Start by creating an index card for each page of your website. Then ask people to sort the cards into groups. This will tell you how users expect to see content organized and labeled on your site.

Alternately, you can have participants rank cards in order of importance or interest. In card sorting exercises conducted by ODPHP, 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)

Learn more about card sorting on usability.gov.

4.3 Create linear information paths.

Linear information paths can help web users with limited literacy skills learn, understand, and move through content on your website.8,28,38,80

Each topic or section of a site has its own linear path. This path guides users through the section using a series of pages or screens. On the first page, give the user a short overview of the content. On each page in a section, include a button or link that takes users to the next page. That way, users can move easily along the linear information path.28,30,35,36,49,50

Figure 4.4

CDC uses links to help users navigate linearly through content.

Screenshot of cdc.gov next and back buttons in the Colorectal Cancer topic

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/basic_info/risk_factors.htm

If you can’t split content into logical chunks, keep it on a single page.81 It’s better for web users to scroll than to click through a series of pages without any clear logic.81 Be sure to put the most important information at the top of the page.

Figure 4.5

healthfinder.gov content is split into short, meaningful chunks so that users can move through the content without getting overwhelmed.

healthfinder.gov topic selection menu

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Category/health-conditions-and-diseases/diabetes/eat-healthy

4.4 Give buttons meaningful labels.

Include buttons or links with labels that tell users where they will go. Web users will click through if you give them reason to believe the click will lead them toward their goal.81

Skip page numbers or generic labels, like “Next” or “Back.”81 Instead, use specific labels, like “What is cholesterol?” or “Back to the homepage.”

Figure 4.6

In a study of healthfinder.gov mobile usability, users missed the clickable page numbers. Instead of page numbers, healthfinder now uses buttons with more meaningful labels.

mobile version of healthfinder.gov context buttons

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Category/health-conditions-and-diseases/diabetes/eat-healthy#the-basics_2

4.5 Make clickable elements recognizable.

Users get frustrated when clickable elements—like buttons and links—are difficult to spot.

Design buttons that are easy to find.

Make them:

  • Large
  • Bright
  • A contrasting color from the surrounding text and background
  • Obviously clickable30,35,36,50

Buttons that are obviously clickable have borders and shadows. If you’re using a site design that doesn’t include borders and shadows, give buttons a rectangular shape and rounded corners.66

Figure 4.7

The buttons on CDC’s homepage look clickable because of their shape.

Screenshot of cdc.gov next and back buttons on the all outbreaks topic

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/

Make button labels easy to understand.

Use a label such as “go” or “get started.” Some users with limited literacy skills don’t understand the term “submit.”

Make buttons look distinct from other elements.

Users get confused when non-clickable elements look like buttons, so avoid giving headings a background color or including lots of colorful boxes on a page.66

Figure 4.8

The myhealthfinder “Get Results” button clearly tells users to click to start finding the preventive services they need. Clickable buttons and icons have a unique style that’s distinct from other elements on the page.

Screenshot of healthfinder.gov myhealthfinder page

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/myhealthfinder/

Apply clear visual cues to links.

Make it clear that links are clickable—avoid making users mouse over text to see if it’s clickable. For example, make links blue or another color that stands out from the body text.66 (See section 3 for more information on making links look clickable.)

Figure 4.9

Links on CDC’s Healthy Weight Success Stories page are blue and underlined, which sets them apart from the surrounding text.

Screenshot of cdc.gov Healthy Weight Sucess Stories page

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/success/index.html

Make all link elements clickable.

Make all elements—for example, a picture, icon, and text—that are related to each other clickable. Users find it easier to click on a large target area.66 If you’re using an icon for a link, combine it with another visual cue, like a text label.66

Figure 4.10

Users can click the button, the icon, or anywhere in the box to get answers to tax questions.

Screenshot of healthcare.gov homepage with mouse hovered over the 'Tax Questions' icon to show clickable area

Source: https://www.healthcare.gov/

Be consistent.

Whatever button or link style you choose, apply it consistently across your website.66

4.6 Make sure the browser “Back” button works.

Web users with limited literacy skills often depend on the “Back” button to navigate a website,41 so it’s very important that this button works predictably and consistently.

For example, when users enter data into a registration page or form, make sure that the information isn’t deleted if users click the “Back” button.

4.7 Provide easy access to home and menu pages.

Web users want the option to start over or jump between pages.11 However, we know that users with limited literacy skills typically don’t use breadcrumbs.30,35 In ODPHP usability testing, users with limited literacy skills were also unlikely to click on a logo in the site header to get to the homepage.

With this in mind, include large buttons that take users back to the homepage or the main menu pages on the site.30,35,39

Figure 4.11

NIH SeniorHealth uses a strong left-hand 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.

Screenshot of nihseniorhealth.gov page on falls

Source: https://nihseniorhealth.gov/falls/aboutfalls/01.html

Use a menu button for mobile.

Mobile devices have limited space. Instead of using a left-hand navigation menu on mobile, add a menu button that opens a custom, mobile-optimized menu. That way, users can expand the menu as needed.

Allow mobile users to go back to the homepage by including a home button or a home option in the menu.

Users appreciate when they don't have to retrace their steps but can instead start fresh on the homepage.


“I like the “Home” button because it lets me correct mistakes more easily.”11

Don’t rely on the “hamburger button” as a navigation cue—research suggests that users don’t find it intuitive.81 Instead, try using the word “menu.”

4.8 Give users options to browse.

Many users with limited literacy skills will browse through categories of content instead of using a search box.8,28,34,39 This may be because they:

  • Don’t see the search box (many users with limited web experience don’t know where to look for a search box)
  • Are worried about spelling mistakes
  • Are overwhelmed by search results
  • Don’t understand placeholder text in search boxes

Include multiple ways to browse for topics (for example, by topic categories in an A to Z list).

Figure 4.12

The healthfinder website allows users to search for health information by topic categories, A to Z list, or search box, or by using the left menu navigation.

Screenshot of healthfinder.gov homepage

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/

4.9 Include a simple search function.

Web users with limited literacy skills are more likely to use a search function that’s simple and user-friendly.

Make your search function easy to locate and use.

Use a large text box with obvious buttons.15

Use a “get started” or “go” button next to your search box.

During usability testing conducted by ODPHP, some users with limited literacy skills clicked a “search” button without entering any terms in the search box.49 A clearly labeled button will signal users that they need to enter a term(s) first.

Figure 4.13

The Healthy People website has a large search box and prompts users to submit their search request with a “go” button.

Screenshot of healthypeople.gov search bar

Source: http://www.healthypeople.gov

Allow for common misspellings.8,30

Spelling is difficult for limited-literacy users,3,10,15 so make sure your search engine will still work if users make a spelling mistake. Help users search by providing spelling and autocomplete assistance.3,10,15

Figure 4.14

HHS.gov uses autocomplete to help users with spelling, and if a search term is misspelled, the results recommend a word using “Did you mean...”

Screenshot of a misspelled seach for diabetes on HHS.gov

Source: HHS search results for diabetes

4.10 Display search results clearly.

To streamline users’ search experience, display the most relevant results first.15

Figure 4.15

The healthfinder.gov search function lists relevant health topic results before related news results. Users usually find the most helpful information in health topics.

Screenshot of healthfinder.gov search results for the keyword 'heart'

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/search/?q=heart

When displaying search results:30

  • Limit the number of results displayed on a page (unlike content-heavy pages, use numbered pages to avoid scrolling)8,30
  • Use clear page titles and include a brief plain language description of each result8,15,30
  • Avoid using long URLs if you can
  • Use keywords in URLs when possible to help users scan
  • Include lots of white space between results
  • Use a large, easy-to-read font
  • Highlight search terms in the results15
Figure 4.16

This search results webpage 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.

Screenshot of MedlinePlus search results page for the keyword 'stroke'

Source: http://vsearch.nlm.nih.gov/vivisimo/cgi-bin/query-meta?query=stroke&v%3Aproject=nlm-main-website


Before users can read your web content, they need to find it. Construct simple and consistent navigation that uses familiar terms, and organize your content in a way that makes sense to your users. Give your users options, like search- and topic-based browsing, so they can navigate your site on any device in the way that’s easiest for them.

When your site is organized well, users can quickly and easily find the information they’re looking for—and they’re less likely to get frustrated and give up altogether.

In the next section, we discuss strategies for engaging your users with multimedia and interactive content.