Health Portal Heal Thyself

[December 1, 2009]

As any devotee of StumbleUpon knows, digital space offers an unparalleled range and depth of material. In some respects, this vastness is its undoing. The potential to deliver “everything and all” on any topic is a powerful temptation to site builders, one they often fail to resist. This has a devastating impact on user experience, as evidenced by the average health information portal.

Without in any way commenting on the quality of the information provided, it’s troubling to see how cluttered and confusing these sites can be. Case in point is WebMD. While the home page roughly adheres to current design standards, offering a slightly less cluttered look now than in recent years, WebMD shares a major deficit with most other sites of its kind: The lack of a clear information hierarchy.

Sure, the page layout helps a little. The central marquee area does focus our attention. It also creates contrast between a text-based left navigation, lesser features below the marquee and the assortment of additional links and advertisements over on the right. But my question is:

What does WebMD say to users beyond “We have lots of medical information for you?”

Absent a thematic point of orientation, the eye just wanders from one box to the other. More important, users can’t put this information in context, since WebMD espouses no explicit medical philosophy.

Adding to the disorientation is the random array of topics in featured content areas. As of today, on the home page, users can find articles about:

• History of AIDS
• RA Symptoms
• Autism
• Diet and Depression
• Diabetes
• Flu Symptoms

…as well as the “Skinny Jeans Workout.” Exploring these options is like leafing through a 5000-page glossy magazine. Where do you begin? Interior pages on specific topics are even harder to take in, offering hundreds of links, stacked one on top of the other. And nowhere is any guidance on how to search for medical information—or what constitutes a successful search.

This approach is quite common, as visits to Men’s Health, MSN Healthy Living, Women’s Health, Medicine.net and many other sites confirm. Most likely the insight behind this approach is that people come to a health portal for many different reasons.

As I see it, the implications of that insight lead away from this model. Instead of presenting “everything and all,” health portals should make a clear distinction, up front, between health news, medical journalism and expert opinion. Whether through a self-selection menu or a category-specific visual vocabulary, users could discover what they need more efficiently—and be far more likely to revisit the site.

In the end, the average health portal resembles Times Square in high season—an erratic mish-mash of garish messaging and uninvited stimuli. Considering the effort needed to maintain the best health portals, it’s a shame so much of their impact is lost on poor user experience.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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