As part of an overall rebranding strategy, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs AT-Ease website was re-designed. The re-design included a review of the information architecture. The review showed that:
- There was a large amount of written content,
- The navigation structure was deep,
- Content was arranged into 3 categories according to 3 audience types,
- Content from each of the 3 categories was of some relevance to more than one audience type,
- Written content was verbose compared to current online writing standards, and
- Written content structure was not always aligned throughout the site.
The 3 audience types were:
- Families of veterans
- Health professionals involved in the treatment of veterans with mental health issues.
Previous user testing showed that people enjoyed accessing the content under their relevant archetype. However, more recently added content did not fit under any single type. User interviews and analysis showed that content from each of the above categories was relevant to all categories in varying degrees.
User testing also showed that when a using the search function, users were going to content marked as not belonging to them e.g. a family member accessing content for health professionals.
The mission of the AT-Ease website was to maintain and improve the health and well-being of veterans and their families. One of the core concepts was that the mental health of veterans was something to be understood and supported by all.
The negative conclusion drawn from this was that the 3-funnel approach sent users down paths labelled for them in particular, whereas all parties should have been encouraged to ‘find out more’ about the mental health of veterans.
When organising the structure of content of a website, considerations include:
- The connection between artefacts
- The framework being intuitive
- Consistency of the application of the method/s chosen.
There are 8 recognised methods to organise information;
- Tree structure / hub and spoke structure
- Trickle down approach
- Consists of parents and children
- Lead users through content
- Step by step approach
- Designated pathway
- Users follow own path
- No specific route
- Alphabetical schemas
- Content was organized alphabetically
- Chronological schemes
- Organises content by date
- Topic schemes
- Organised according by subject
- Audience schemes
- Organised for separate groups of users.
The revised navigation used a combination of methods to organise the content consistently, using accepted approaches, and in a manner conducive to learning.
The mission of the AT-Ease website was to maintain and improve the health and wellbeing of veterans and their families. However, looking closely at the content, we saw that veterans were at the core of the mission. The content for the other two audience types, families and health professionals, was in support of veterans.
The original structure provided content that funneled users down one of three pathways according to their audience type. Each pathway was labelled according to the corresponding audience type i.e.
- Families, and
- Health professionals.
Veterans and families visited the website in approximately equal numbers. The amount of content for veterans outweighed the amount of content directly related to families by at least 3:1.
The revised approach sought to remove the 3-funnel approach by removing the label for veterans, and surfacing the content falling under that label. This placed the content at the same level as the families and health professionals’ labels, and changed the context. The role of families and health professionals was thus seen as within the sphere of veterans’ health and well-being, not separated from it. By placing content directly related to veterans at the highest level, there was better alignment to the mission of maintaining and improving the general physical and mental health and well-being of veterans.
Higher page hits and visits
Removing the ‘Veterans’ label and surfacing the content allowed for easier and faster access to it with less clicks. It became easier to access for all website visitors. This in turn encouraged higher numbers of page hits and return visits.
The goal of optimising the organisation of information within the AT-Ease website was to increase the of maintaining and improving the health and wellbeing of veterans and their families.
Cognitive flow may be generated by placing items in an order that sees the users’ level of interest in the content maintained or increased over the span of use of the website. Finding information on a particular subject is important, however the content needs to be organised in a manner that encourages further consumption.
Scanning left to right
Using the F pattern, we know that the left point of the top horizontal navigation was the most seen part of the site. Two competing principles can arise.
- Simple content should go to the left, with more cognitively intensive content to the right.
- More important content should go to the left, with less important content to the right.
A third important consideration was to create buy-in. We needed to be able to hook our users.
The primacy of help and support
Placing the support pages to the left highlights to the user their relevance and importance. Remembering the F pattern eye tracking principles from above, the Support pages are easy to find, and highly noticeable.
With the left to right scanning principle in mind, placing the support pages to the right may have indicated to the user that they should first read the content, then seek support. This may have led users to discount accessing the support section.
The colour of the support menu item was changed to highlight it, and separated from the logical groupings of other labels, explained below.
Establishing the context and inclusion
The revised information architecture placed a section in the left most position for veterans who are:
- currently serving,
- transitioning, and
This served to immediately establish the context of who the site was about.
Research has indicated that currently serving or transitioning members may not consider themselves veterans. By placing content for all veteran types, we created buy-in amongst all veterans.
The relevance of families
Families suffer issues as a result of veterans. While the mission of the AT-Ease website was to maintain and improve the health and well-being of veterans and their families, veterans were most central to our mission. This was reflected in the amount of content – approximately 3 times more content on veterans than there was on families. Despite this, families and veterans are evenly split in terms of site visits.
We identified through interviews and testing that families would benefit from reading the content in the website more if it were not under the family top level label (e.g. the Resources section was highly relevant to this audience).
Humans naturally seek to categorise things. It provides us with a sense of order and understanding. Veterans and Families both belong in an audience schema. By placing Families next to Veterans, we appealed to our human nature and provided a sense of calm.
Health, well-being and disorders
As the core to our mission was the health and well-being of our veterans, this content had the highest importance. As mentioned above, humans naturally seek to categorise things. Placing all content on health and well-being together appeals to our human nature and provides a sense of calm. Furthermore, placing it central in the horizontal navigation bar provided a strong visual indicator of what the site was about.
Examination of the content on ‘Health, well-being and disorders’ indicated that:
- It was a topic and may be organised by subject,
- It was hierarchical and may be organised from common to least common , and
- It was sequential and may be organised from prevention to acceptance.
This content was organised in groups from left to right in order of the hierarchies outlined above.
Content that could be grouped under the single ‘Resources’ label was pulled from other sections of the site. Resources are relevant to all veterans and family members. It was also information that could best be utilised after a user had browsed the website and learned at least some of the content therein. Logically then, this label was placed to the right of the content designed for both veterans and families.
Working with us
This content was designed for health professionals and previously labelled ‘Professionals. User interviews indicated there was confusion arising due to soldiers referring to themselves as professionals. The label ‘Health professionals’ was considered; however, concern was raised that the veterans and families may have viewed this label as a list of doctors etc that they could visit. With consideration to this, a verb was decided upon for the most appropriate label. It was discovered ‘Working with us’ would provide the least amount of confusion and was the most descriptive option.
Because veterans and families would not find this content helpful, the ‘Working with us’ label was aligned to the right end of the horizontal nav. Similar to the ‘Get support’ label, it was created in a different colour. This served to separate the label from the other content, while still keeping it accessible to health professionals.
This content was placed in the footer of the website. A search function was created in the head of the website and visible from any page. We thought the sitemap may be helpful to a user, however the navigation served to provide the same functionality, so there was little benefit to including it in the main navigation.
While information architecture does not accept a one size fits all approach, with careful consideration given to the different methods to organise information, a clean, calm, simple and easy to understand structure achieved.