Steering Away from Omnibus Web Sites

One of the strengths of American culture is the large number of associations and foundations devoted to major causes. They serve a vital function and we should be proud of them all. In our digital/mobile era it’s only natural that these organizations would want to increase the scope and extend the reach of their efforts by creating a Web presence.

Particularly in the case of organizations dedicated to health-related causes, however, the results are by-in-large dysfunctional.

That’s not to say that these sites “don’t work.” You can visit any of the following…

American Diabetes Foundation
American Heart Association
American Liver Foundation
American Lung Association
National Kidney Foundation

…and click through to dozens upon dozens of pages of information on a wide variety of topics directly and indirectly related to a particular illness or condition.

And that’s the problem.

What you’ll find is an overwhelming mass of words encased in a labyrinthine site architecture that would test the limits of the NORAD targeting system to find its way around.

The problem begins with the unbridled proliferation of links:


Each site outlined above has between 12-17 navigation points on the home page alone. What’s more, each link leads to a page linking to an average of 4-5 subpages.

Now, I have no doubt that the impetus behind such comprehensive coverage is a desire to provide as much help, information, encouragement and advocacy as possible. The question is whether, in its current format, this encyclopedic approach works against those lofty aims. As I see it, the answer is “Yes.”

At the heart of the problem is the assumption that the aim of every site visitor is to gather as much information as possible right away. People being the variable creatures they are, however, the only thing we can assume is that each visitor has a different goal each and every time—and that no two visitors can be guaranteed to pursue the same path through the site.

Plus, whether I choose to visit www.lung.org because my aunt won’t stop smoking, because I feel a little wheezy or because I wish to make a donation, I have a limited amount of time set aside to find answers. As a result, the first question this site needs to answer is:

“Where do I begin?”

That’s me, a specific user, not an abstract audience model. And, confronted with a home page studded with 17 navigational links, arrayed in an irregular grid that gives equal weight to each, I may find the answer to that question a tad elusive. If I’m like many users, I’ll putter around until I’m exhausted, or—just as I’m running out of time—finally identify the sections of the site that matter to me.

I could try again later but, fact is, all that clutter is guaranteed to discourage repeat visits. Site design like this is analogous to gathering an audience in an auditorium and asking it to listen to 8-10 speakers discuss divergent topics all at the same time. They’re not bloody likely to retain much information.

What’s needed is a reimagined site architecture—whose first goal should be to help users identify the most efficient route to the information they need. Keep in mind that such identification is necessary precisely because of the depth of information cause-related sites rightly seek to convey.

One solution is a self-selection menu enabling users to identify key areas of interest at the outset. After all, a care provider, physician, newly diagnosed patient, or benefactor all need something different from the site. Clicking an identifying link would call up a submenu of related links that would streamline the process by eliminating the need to “stumble through.”

Another solution is the one adopted by Amazon.com. It gives users recommendations based on their initial choices. “People who selected Section X also selected the following Sections.” While these and other post-hypertext strategies require more programming expertise, if your goal is to build an omnibus site for your cause, they offer effective remedies to the dismally flat, dehumanizing clutter that dominates the cause-marketing digital landscape.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from recognizing the limits of human endurance. In that sense, the best alternative to “Encyclopedia.com” is diversification. Instead of one massive site, you might consider building a network of smaller sites, each limited to a single theme or pair of themes. Users interested in a `medical overview, would go to A.com. Users hoping to be care providers would go to B.com and so on. That way, each user’s experience would be more rewarding, more purposeful and more memorable.

Because no matter how you look at “user engagement,” “advocacy,” or “empowerment,” all the theory in the universe is worthless if users must struggle to get what they need from your site.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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