CUA of the Month – March, 2008

Jim Angus
"On the NIH sites, most folks are looking for health-related information, often for an ill family member. This makes it extremely important to distill the site down to something that really works – and quickly."
 
Jim Angus
Associate Director of Communications
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Extramural Research

Site Design That Saves Lives Usability Pioneer Helps NINDS Bring Healthcare to Users' Fingertips

by Christine Schrum

Jim Angus doesn't consider himself a "usability person" – which is ironic because he's one of the world's very first. A website designer since the Internet's earliest days, Jim spent decades developing what he calls "workhorse websites, where users can get what they want quickly and easily, without extra fluff."

It wasn't until 2001, when working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that Jim realized there was an entire discipline devoted to the principles he'd long put into practice. As project manager for the review, redesign, and rebranding of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) website and intranet, Jim collaborated with HFI's usability experts – and found he had a lot in common with them.

"I realized I was one of them," Jim recalls. "There was already a language to describe the types of things I was doing in a very unstructured way – I just had to learn the vocabulary."

That vocabulary came to the fore as Jim and HFI's usability experts began evaluating the NINDS sites' strengths and weaknesses. One of over 2 dozen research institutes and centers comprising the world-famous National Institutes of Health (NIH), NINDS conducts and supports research on more than 600 brain and nervous systems disorders. As a result, its website and intranet are extremely content- and information-heavy.

"On the NIH sites, most folks are looking for health-related information, often for an ill family member," says Jim. "This makes it extremely important to distill the site down to something that really works – and quickly."

At the onset of the project, NINDS sites' users, stakeholders, and staff complained that they could not easily find the information they were seeking – especially on the intranet.

"Category names just didn't make sense," Jim says. "The site really didn't serve the needs of the staff. The intranet had become a dumping ground for files that someone thought should be shared with staff."

Following the Schaffer-Weinschenk Method™, HFI's usability team conducted surveys and focus groups to help determine what information was most needed by users. Along the way, Jim realized HFI's approach closely mirrored that of his own.

"Basic things," he says, "like the fact that you talk to your users early on in the design phase. Who's the audience? And if you manage to reach that audience, what tasks do you want them to perform? It's actually pretty amazing – most people haven't thought these things through."

All too often, says Jim, organizations design sites based on an insider's perspective rather than according to what users actually need.

"They'll think they have a design that everyone will understand," says Jim, "but the only way to demonstrate that is to test it on real users who represent the target audiences. Web developers and content folk are just too close to the project."

Based on HFI's end-user data gathering, the team redesigned and restructured the NINDS intranet to better serve the needs of its audiences. They implemented "parametric searches," which enabled users to search for content by effectively narrowing the field of possible results. They created links that empowered staff to update site content and suggest changes. They changed the top level navigation so that it featured "community" tabs that allowed them to "push content" specific to each of the 3 NINDS communities: administrators, researchers and funding specialists.

"The improvement with the intranet was remarkable," says Jim. "We saw a huge increase in traffic." They also found the community-specific Web pages were popular and that people frequently used the feedback links.

The public website had different challenges. According to Jim, NINDS had previously invested in a new content-management system that would help keep the site's content fresh and make distributed content management possible. However, the CMS also imposed heavy technical constraints on how the site could be structured.

"That's where the JADs (Joint Application Development teams) came in," says Jim. "We had HFI's usability people, our content people, and technical developers all at the same table. By meeting together often, we came to understand the technical limitations – and strengths – and were able to suggest a design that really worked for users and worked with our technology."

To help users find what they needed fast, the team implemented an A-Z disease index and a disease "Quick Link" pull-down menu for the most frequently requested disease fact sheets. Visually, Jim says, HFI's design experts took care to give the site more "emotional appeal" and to place key information where people's eyes were most likely to scan.

The results were wildly successful. Summative evaluation showed that users were able to accomplish specific tasks with much greater ease. Furthermore, Web traffic logs indicated that users were staying an average of 20 minutes on the site. As Jim points out, "people don't stay on sites where it's difficult to find the information they're looking for."

During the project, Jim was so impressed with HFI's usability-based research and design methodologies that he signed up for CUA training to further his own skills.

"Working closely with HFI's usability experts, everything just clicked," he said. "When I took the training, I found there was a whole lot that I didn't know."

At that point, Jim knew the next logical step: institutionalizing usability at NIH.

"We engaged HFI's consultants and sent several members of our Web team to take HFI's usability training. This meant that everyone, including me as manager, had a strong basis in usability."

Jim says the team's training paid off in the new NINDS sites and was an excellent investment for NIH, helping the redesign efforts for many of the organization's sites. Personally, the CUA certification has given Jim more credibility when dealing with decision-makers and stakeholders.

"For Web designers, you really need something that sets you apart and effectively raises the standards for the work you produce," he says. "Becoming a CUA helps to accomplish that."

A strong proponent of HFI's usability training, Jim personally recommends the CUA course to anyone involved in Web design and content.

"There is a body of knowledge, a community of practice, and a wealth of best practices out there. All you have to do is take a few steps into that community and begin to explore."

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to hfi@humanfactors.com

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