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3-Year-Old Site Refreshed
NIH Home Page Updates Its Look

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

Most people see 3-year-olds and think, "Cute toddler, just barely starting life." That is, unless the 3-year-old "toddler" is a web page. Then, most people might consider it a relic. Time moves a lot faster on the World Wide Web. That's one reason NIH recently revamped the look and organization of its home page.

Continued...

"With the web, things tend to change rapidly," says Dennis Rodrigues of the NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison, which manages the NIH web site. "By refreshing the look, you're letting people know that your site is evolving and healthy. You're encouraging users to explore. You want to avoid the impression that the site is old and stale."

Altered States

Last year, a team that included Richard Barnes, CIT web graphics designer, and Ginny Vinton, CIT home page server administrator; the NIH web coordinating committee, a group of IC and OD representatives that acts as an executive board for the home page; as well as staff at Rodrigues' branch, began considering ideas to renovate the site.

As with any redecorating project, everything from color choices to photos and other artwork were picked at and analyzed. But, Rodrigues admits, a lot more went into the update than simply rearranging words and pictures on a page. A pilot project to evaluate the site's effectiveness was also undertaken. That project produced about a dozen videotapes of people actually accessing NIH's home page, navigating the site and searching for information they wanted. Using the results of the pilot, the redesign team considered a number of changes — both cosmetic and substantive.

Above is the latest iteration of the NIH home page on the World Wide Web. The address is a simple www.nih.gov. Several independent auditors have found recently that the NIH home page is popular with the public. According to PC Data Online's Top 10 Hit List, the NIH site ranks ninth (as of Aug. 26) in hits in the category of Health and Family; NIH was also the only federal site ranked in any category.

The August 1997 version

Take white space, for example, says Rodrigues. The team found that, unlike a paper product, web pages can get away with filling in a lot more space.

"Over the last several years, we've learned a lot about effective design techniques for the web," he points out. "There's a difference between how much white space is appropriate in hard copy and how much is appropriate on screen. Studies suggest people don't need as much empty space on screen. They tend to like a lot more choices on web pages."

Barnes came up with several drafts, which were pored over and tweaked. The final pick went through several rounds of revision before it was adopted.

"After we chose the design," Rodrigues recalls, "we went about reorganizing the content. Our existing information didn't always fit easily into the new design templates; the team had to do quite a bit of creative restructuring so that everything made sense."

The new NIH page features a white background with main headings in blue type and borrows a few elements from its predecessor, including some of the graphics and accent colors. It also features several ways the user can access the major sections of the site: simple file folder-like tabs along the top, a list with brief details about each section down the left center of the screen, and bracketed links along the bottom. Several frequently requested items — Q&As, employment information and visitor information — are set off in a different color and different typeface, and are now easier to find, grouped along the right side of the page.

Other navigation tools added to the site can be found on secondary pages, which prominently feature "On this page" or "Quick links" (short contents lists) along the left side. Users no longer have to scan the entire page for its highlights.

More Than a Pretty Face

Many of the site's pages were re-examined for accessibility issues as well, Rodrigues continues. A lot of work was done to make the site accessible to users with disabilities.

The September 1996 version was revamped only months later.

The December 1996 version

Overall, the text on the new site is presented in clean and easier-to-read type. Use of photos has been minimized, and all graphics have what are called "alt tags," which appear as the user's cursor passes over the pictures and contain short explanations of the graphics for people who cannot see.

Accounting for the wide variety of computers and software available in the online community, the new design was tested on different size monitors, using several different web browsers.

Next Update Not Far Away

Because the web site could not be closed while renovations were made, the technical team built the new site as a mirror image on a test machine; the new page would have to replace the old in mere moments to minimize downtime. On a low-usage Sunday afternoon, Aug. 20, the moment of truth arrived. The switch was made — not without a few technical snafus that kept the team working deep into the 9 p.m. hour.

"You have this maze of interconnected elements," Rodrigues explains, "and you're moving the elements around. The potential for things to become disconnected is very high. We had a few problems with some of the links, but given the amount of material we were moving, the swap went fairly smoothly."

So far, most of the feedback on the new site has been positive, he reports. "It was a great example of teamwork — Richard created an elegant design, we reorganized and transferred the content, and Ginny's group handled switching the files to the production server." The team that worked on the redesign is not done yet, though. Rodrigues acknowledges that the web is constantly introducing new concepts and new elements to consider. For example, technology for palm pilots — handheld computers and electronic organizers — seems to be gaining momentum, he says. Will the NIH site work well with that technology, or might there be a better way to design for this much smaller format?

"You have to keep up with new trends and design techniques," concludes Rodrigues. "The evaluation data we used was by no means exhaustive. The plan now is to conduct studies on the revised site, identify any problems and find ways to adjust the site to solve them. These new studies will provide us with even better data for the next update. With the web, you really can't ever rest on your laurels."

The December 1993 version

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