Designing the Google Sites H1N1 / Emergency Templates
Bolt | Peters recently collaborated with Stanford University’s Bill Behrman on designing the Google Sites template for local governments to use as a backup to deliver information on the H1N1 outbreak, and also disasters in general. Here’s the story!
The Quick Fix
With the recent outbreak of H1N1, Santa Clara County’s official public flu information site was taken down by the surge in web traffic. To help relieve the demand, the Stanford Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program stepped in literally within hours of the interruption to create an ad hoc backup site using Google sites, just so people could still access the critical info. This is what they originally posted:
After the site went up, Stanford trained the Santa Clara County staff, who maintained it and added their own information. Santa Clara County had to get the site up in a hurry, and they were just happy to have a site that could handle the traffic and get the information out—which is to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about design.
This experience made it clear that it would be valuable to create a well-designed, easy-to-edit template for local governments to distribute information in case of emergencies—not just H1N1, but any public hazard, including floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and so on. That’s where we came in.
Bill contacted us in late October with the original draft of the website. Since it was important to make the site available as soon as possible to deal with the ongoing H1N1 outbreak, so the timeline we had for design recommendations was really brief—just a few days. With that in mind, we got to work.
Spotting the Problems
Because of the layout restrictions, our design evaluation focused primarily on information design. We had two main issues with the early design, along with a handful of usability tweaks here and there.
1. It lacked a clear visual hierarchy.
With two columns of equal width and mostly indistinguishable boxes filled with text, it was hard to tell at a glance what information was urgent, time-sensitive, or recently added.
2. Big chunks of info, no organization.
The info wasn’t grouped into meaningful categories—there wasn’t much visual or spatial distinction between contact info, prevention info, calls to action, and so on, making it difficult to zero in on information even if you know what you were looking for. Also, the info came in big blocks of unscannable prose, and deep reading is the last thing you want to do when you’re trying to learn about the tsunami headed your way.
3. It didn’t anticipate the distinct needs of the most critical user segments.
There was plenty of good info on the site, but it was never clear who a given piece of info was for—you couldn’t scan the page headers and think, “Yeah, there’s what I’m looking for”. Instead it had a “general audience” feel to it; the info didn’t take into account that different groups might have different needs and different levels of urgency.
4. Buried info.
Vital info on vaccines, symptoms, and SMS / Twitter updates was absent from the front page entirely, lurking deep in the navigation.
Our Top Recommendations
To keep editing simple for the the local government end-users who would be using the template, we had to stick to using the WYSIWYG Google Sites editor, which meant no custom CSS and very little control over layout. We also had literally a single day to make our recommendations and synthesize them into a first-draft mockup—the result wasn’t pretty, but got our main info design recommendations across loud and clear.
Redesign Goal #1: Prioritize information according to the urgency of visitor need.
Our design takes into account that there are different “general public” user segments with different goals, and that there are tiers of urgency and priority. From most-to-least urgent, we identified these segments:
- People infected with the flu: Seeking immediate help
- People worried that they might have the flu: Self-diagnosis
- People concerned about catching and/or spreading the flu: Preventative measures and vaccine info)
- People just curious, staying informed: Information about travel restrictions, public response, news updates, deep flu info.
The structure of the site was altered to serve each of these segments:
1. We added a page-width alert box that would be displayed to convey urgent, time-sensitive info—this is a common feature on many of Google’s sites, as well as CNN.com.
2. A yellow-shaded box to give the highest priority group, currently affected individuals, clear instructions on what to do.
3. The left-column contains info on self-diagnostic and preventative measures for at-risk or concerned individuals.
4. The top-right contains info on vaccines; below is links to deep info, research, and update notifications. Though the Google Sites template didn’t allow us to resize the right column, we noted that it should be made smaller than the left column.
5. The left sidebar navigation was reserved for redundant quick links to most important info, as well as links to pages for specially affected individuals and organizations.
Redesign Goal #2: Reduce block text down to easy-to-scan lists and chunks. Cut the bureaucratic BS.
We broke down the block text to keep from overwhelming users with too much difficult-to-scan information upfront. Lists were kept to under 8 items long, unless they broken down into categorized sub-lists; text was kept under five lines. All information that couldn’t be condensed in this way was moved to lower-level pages, and linked from higher-level pages.
Users don’t need to know what the mission statement and goals of the organization are; they just want to know if and how they are personally affected, and what they can do in case they are affected.
Redesign Goal #3: Use informative headers that directly address user goals, and which give all users clear next steps.
All types of visitor (e.g. directly affected, at risk, concerned, just curious, administrative, medical, etc.) should be able to tell by the header if that information is “for them”. We tweaked the headers to make it clear what kind of info you could find in each section. We also made it clear what, if anything, each user segment needed to do:
- Immediately affected individuals are given step-by-step instructions on how to deal with their emergency situation(s).
- At-risk individuals are given step-by-step information on preventative, precautionary, and self-diagnostic measures.
- Individuals seeking non-urgent information can be given supplementary external information resources (by phone, online, and downloadable / printable) and means to stay updated (by email, text, RSS, Twitter).
- Urgent contact info is immediately visible in the right sidebar.
The First Revision
After we sent over our recommendations and mockup, Bill sent us a nice note a day or two later:
You’ve convinced us that we have to completely rethink and redesign the site from scratch, so your style guidelines come at a very good time. I can’t thank you enough for opening our eyes to how we can do this in a much better way. I think we can create a site that works much better than the original site.
…and then a few days after that, Stanford sent a revised version over to Google, who worked with the design firm OTT Enterprises to create two new designs with some added visual design flourishes.
Unfortunately we don’t have permission to show you this revision yet (working on it), but it wasn’t bad—it was certainly cleaner and better organized, easier to scan, less dense. There was, however, a large distracting green gradient background, some empty space in the sidebar columns, a few stock photos, and a muddled color palette (green, blue, yellow, and gray).
Our second batch of suggestions focused mostly on visual design and layout. Just a few of them:
- Get rid of the gradient background; it’s distracting and confuses the emphasis on different parts of the site, since it runs behind multiple different elements.
- Get rid of the green coloring, which is tertiary to the blue and yellow. Instead, use several shades of blue as the primary color and a little light beige or light grey as a secondary trim. Blue signifies authority, calmness, trustworthiness, etc., which are of course appropriate here. Notice how almost every major government agency’s website (including the CDC) uses dark blue and gray as the main colors.
- Remove the stock images, including the CDC and Flu.gov widget images, which look like ads. The phone and email icons are fine, however.
- Rather than images, make the content headers stand out with size and strong typography—”make the content the focus” is an old web design adage, and the content, in this case, is the flu information. Here are a bunch of sites that use typography, font size, whitespace, and bold layout to create emphasis, using few images [list of a bunch of websites].
- Header and upper-page content takes up way too much space—note that the important info (“If you or your child…”) doesn’t begin until more than halfway down the screen. Compress.
- I like how Design #2 places the alert and contact info in the sidebar; in Design #1 the sidebar is wasted space. This frees up space to move important info (Vaccine and How to Care for Someone With The Flu) up to the right side.
- This design consists mostly of links to deeper pages, but there’s definitely room to put more specific, useful info right on the homepage: symptoms, preventative measures, vaccine info (see our original design)
- Get rid of the Contents box.
Stanford started over once again, aided by our style guide and input from OTT Enterprises. After further iterations in Google Sites, they handed it over to the Google visual designers, and here’s the before-and-after:
Want to give your feedback?
As with all things on the web, the template is a design-in-progress, and will be improved as time goes on. Here’s where you can send feedback for the Public Health template and the All Hazards template. Since these Google Sites templates are available to everyone, you can even make your own design edits and mock up improvements.
Or if you just think it’s great and you just want to use it yourself, here’s the complete list of links: