Using IA and Plain Language to Make Federal Websites More Usable

In its simplest form, information architecture is defined as “The practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable,” according to the Information Architecture Institute.

In practice, however, it gets a bit more complex.

Let’s say we’re building a federal website that needs to reach a diverse audience. In order for the Information Architecture to be effective, we must increase findability—that is, the ease with which people can find what they’re looking for—and reduce cognitive load, or the total amount of mental energy someone must expend when interacting with the site.

Grouping (how we associate information) and labeling (how we talk about that information) are two tools we can use to help site users find things more easily.

The government has created “Federal Plain Language Guidelines” we can follow to help those who are creating sites develop a well-understood information architecture. These guidelines include suggestions such as:

  • using language the site’s audience knows and is comfortable with
  • taking into account the site’s audience level of knowledge about the site’s subject
  • organizing to meet the visitors’ needs
  • using lots of headings
  • breaking up chunks of text into readable, digestible segments

Even before implementing the above suggestions, the guidelines recommend first and foremost understanding the audience. For example:

  • Who is the site’s audience?
  • What does the site’s audience need to know about the subject?
  • What do they already know?
  • What questions will they have?
  • What is the best outcome for a site visitor when interacting with the site?
  • What is the best outcome for the agency or department or organization running the site when a visitor interacts with the site?

Even when we know the answers to these questions and have grouped and labeled information in a way that we believe makes the most sense to the users, we can still run into trouble with findability. Search engines are a perfect example.

We learned this firsthand during a project for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to migrate Fitness.gov from one content management system, Percussion, to another, Drupal, using the new HHS.gov look and feel.

To prepare for this Agile migration project, we first collected data to illuminate Fitness.gov’s users’ top tasks.

When we examined data about the top pages visited, the metrics revealed something interesting: Two of the top five most visited pages, “Why it is important to Eat Healthy” and “Why it is important to Be Active”, were supported by external search terms relating to their content, but their exit percentages and bounce rates were upwards of 80 percent.

This suggested people were getting to the page, but they weren’t finding the information they were looking for.

From the front-end, user context, the menu label “Why it is important” makes sense. The user can clearly see, from the menu items’ locations within their respective parent groups, what type of information a page named “Why is it important” might contain.

To a search engine, however, these pages look very similar.

Iterating and Testing


Since both “Why is it important” pages ranked in the top five most visited on Fitness.gov, we decided as part of the migration to not only retitle these pages but also label the menu items leading to them. We committed to using plain language principles and also to the idea that the titles and labels must be specific to the content on each page.

For the Eat Healthy section, Fitness.gov staff decided on “Importance of Good Nutrition” for both the page title and the menu item label. For the Be Active section, they chose “Importance of Physical Activity” as the new page title and menu item label

These title choices provide clear information to site visitors to help them more easily find their way, and they provide search engines with more specificity about the content of each page.

Because of the way the HHS.gov Drupal environment is configured, these page titles will also be reflected throughout the migrated site, reinforcing and enhancing wayfinding for site visitors.

Once these changes are in place, we’ll be examining the site metrics to see if they had any effect on the exit percentages and bounce rates for each page.

Until then, we’ll continue to monitor the site’s metrics and apply plain language best principles to the site’s information architecture to help the site’s users do the things they need to do.