Somewhere around mile 500 of the Revere tribe’s 1000 mile trek to the beach for an alleged vacation — long digression that interrupts the clear meaning of the sentence: if I’m on vacation, what am I doing writing about it? That’s what Mrs. R. asked, as she headed to the beach, leaving me in air conditioned online splendor in a rented condo that could have been anywhere in the world, as long as it had high speed internet connection — as I was saying, around mile 500 driving our new-ish car journey, CDC went live on a completely redesigned website for its novel H1N1 (aka swine flu) info. I’m just taking a look at it now, trying to view it from the perspective of a wide variety of visitors: those new to the pandemic, those that know something but have specific questions, those like us who have been around and want to find out what CDC is doing or thinking, etc. Consider this a user review.
First let me say I think CDC has been doing a decent job in keeping people informed. Not perfect, but the messaging has given the impression of appropriate concern without giving the idea that something incredibly terrible was happening. There has been relatively little overt spin. Of course the spin is there, but spin is another way to say that a particular meaning is intended, and for our part, as public health professionals, we think the intended meaning has been the right one. A pandemic is a Big Deal, but this one remains within bounds, things are are not out of control, and the problem is being approached rationally and systematically. That doesn’t mean the pandemic is under control. It isn’t. It just means that we can have some confidence that rational, competent and credible professionals are working on it on our behalf and not on the behalf of politicians covering their asses. We say this despite our strong tendency to cynicism about such things. Still, it’s the way it looks to us. But now to the website itself. These are first impressions only. As we and others use it more, they are subject to change.
The page design is the usual three column (main section in the middle with left and right sidebars with navigation and tools). The first page (http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/) has an above-the-fold section at the top on vaccination recommendations, presumably because the CDC Advisory Committee had just made them, but also because availability of the vaccine (when, how much, who should or can get it, etc.) has been a preoccupation of the news media and hence the public. It’s not clear whether if this vaccination piece is in a “feature” slot that will change or a permanent position. I hope it’s the former. Vaccination against seasonal influenza is undoubtedly an important public health measure and it has been a preoccupation, if not an obsession, of the CDC flu branch for a long time (CDC also has a pretty cozy relationship with vaccine manufacturers that sometimes borders on the inappropriate, but that’s another story). Even if you agree with CDC’s all-eggsin-the-vaccine-making basket approach for seasonal flu, there is no vaccine (yet) for swine flu, so I hope they move on to other areas in this high profile slot on the opening page. We’ll have to see.
In our initial impression, the organization of the front page is slightly confusing. The left sidebar has a navigational outline of main sections, but some of those sections are repeated on the flu front page right below the top paragraph. Not all of them, just some, and this is one thing that makes it confusing. For example, General Information on the sidebar and in the middle section bring you to the same page, but Background in the main section has no counterpart on the sidebar nor does Facts and Figures, while International Situation is the same in both. The US Update in the left sidebar is repeated in the main section but in a separate right mini-sidebar with thumbnails of graphics that all go to the same update section. So there are links that are repeated and unique in the left sidebar and the main section and the unique ones have similar names but go to different pages. I’m sure I could get used to this but the organization was not at all clear to me and I wasn’t sure where to go to find specific kinds of information that seemed to be described similarly on this page (example: US Situation Update and FluView). There is also a set of boxed sections at the bottom of this page that repeats some of the left sidebar page links (e.g., Information for Specific Groups) and General Information makes yet another appearance (its third) on the page.
Designing webpages is a difficult art. It’s easy to criticize. For what it’s worth, I found the easiest and most useful part of the page to be the last one mentioned, at the bottom of the main section. It seems to me that the left sidebar could be eliminated to give more screen realestate and the entire left-middle space taken up with the design used at the bottom of the page (starting with “CDC Advisors Make Recommendations for Use of Vaccine Against H1N1 Flu”), including some of the sections above, with bullet points, not in the boxed section (yet). In other words, design the whole left-middle page like that. I suppose if I saw something like that I might see other problems with it, but these are my first impressions.
The right sidebar has the usual (but useful) tools, including font size changes for old people like me. At the bottom are some downloadable buttons, icons and graphics you can put on your own site promoting CDC messages. Yawn. But there was room for them, so why not? More useful are links to various images that can be used on news sites and blogs, like electron photomicrographs of the virus, although the one showing the CDC PCR test kit was visually incomprehensible. As a flu blogger, I hope we see more images, though. The Social Media link is also nice, although it includes non-flu campaigns. I’d advise CDC not to use their flu site to promote non-related CDC interests. You can have a link back to the CDC Homepage on every page. That’s enough. Stay focussed. The site pretty much does that, so maybe this just fell through the cracks on the first try.
In general, there are many well marked and useful links here, so I think this is a pretty good first try. In our view the front page needs some more attention and I hope it will get it as a result of feedback like this. Since your opinions may be quite different than ours, I encourage you to take the survey CDC actively offers to some visitors and passively accessible to all (two thirds of the way down the right sidebar). I’d be interested in what you think, too. Use the comments.