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Public health guide

Information Architecture for Public Health Organizations

– By Art Assoiants

Public Health Organizations (PHO)s often have broad mandates, diverse stakeholders, and numerous services. With physical distancing and increasing digitalization, more users are accessing PHO content online instead of in-person. How do healthcare leaders ensure that their PHOs’ online assets meet their diverse users’ needs? One answer is information architecture (IA). In this article, you’ll learn what IA is, why it’s relevant, and how to carry it out in your organization.

When IA Goes Wrong

Before jumping into definitions, I’d like to demonstrate worst-case scenarios:

  • Users bounce off your site because they don’t think it’s relevant to them

  • Users end up contacting your organization because they can’t find content

  • Users don’t understand which section of your website is intended for them versus other groups (e.g., the public versus healthcare providers)

  • Users leave your site because they don’t connect with the language that’s used

  • Your brand perception suffers because users cannot follow through on simple tasks (e.g., finding, booking, contacting)

And the list goes on. Let’s explore what it feels like when IA is done well. 

What is IA?

You likely remember the experience of trying to figure out an old remote control. Then folks at Apple came along and broke the system, creating a remote that’s elegant, intuitive, and easy to use. Or consider how Netflix organizes tomes of content into intuitive categories. This ability to remove unnecessary noise and discomfort is what elegant IA feels like for the user. 

Comparing the simplicity of Apple Remote to others. Source.

The U.S. General Services Administration defines IA as "organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way. The goal is to help users find information and complete tasks.” Let’s explore its relevance for PHOs.

The Use Case for IA in PHOs

Information architecture is especially relevant for public health organizations (PHOs) because

  1. PHOs often have blue-sky mandates and numerous programs, campaigns, and initiatives

  2. PHOs often service diverse user groups, each with their own needs and mental models

  3. PHOs often operate on legacy decisions that drive current state user interactions

As I’ve seen in my work at PH1 Research, and corroborated by academic research, PHOs have a great deal of room to grow with their digital assets. For instance, Theresa Devine and colleagues found that of 100 health websites, 42% did not meet 3/6 reliability criteria, and 58% did not meet more than 10/19 usability criteria. 

Considering that ever increasing amounts of users will engage with your PHO through online means, there is more of a precedent to ensure their experiences are attended to. What does a good website IA mean for your PHO?

  • An increase in traffic by the right people

  • An increase in user satisfaction with your website and brand

  • An increase of program use and take-up by the right people

  • An decrease in contact because users can quickly navigate your website

In other words, focusing on great IA will ensure your PHO is positioned for success in the age of digital experiences. The first step is to assess your PHO’s IA current state.

IA Audit Systems

Many leading authorities in user experience have come up with ways of auditing IA. Each has strengths and weaknesses. For your PHO, choose the one that is a) actionable and b) aligns with your overall user experience strategy. Here is one example:

  • Website Usability Evaluation Instrument

    • No clear visual hierarchy

    • Poor searchability

    • Poorly labeled content categories

    • Pages difficult to skim or scan

    • Page elements difficult to read

    • Related topics not visually grouped together

    • Poor contrast between text and background

Researching User Experience

Now that you have a use case for creating strong IA and understand the fundamentals, it’s time to do the research. Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The tools and techniques need to be dictated by the project goal and type(s) of audience. Thus, your leadership, operations, and researchers need to be aligned on being human-centred. 

However, to be human-centred, your team needs to understand its audiences. Here are three suggestions for going about this process (in order of least to most complex):

When you have a better understanding of the diversity of stakeholders, and the types of people who interact with the output of your IA, you’re ready to research IA. Examples of research methods include:

  • Card sorting exercises: to help rank importance of content/ categories

  • Treejack: to build structure bottom-up from the user’s point of view, or to validate the content structure that you hypothesize meets their needs

  • Wireframing and prototyping: iterating through various rounds of incremental improvement

Throughout your research engagements, consider the importance of being representative with your participants. At PH1 Research, we often find that recruiting and testing with diverse user groups ensures that data, insights, and outputs are more robust and evergreen. 

What to do now?

  • Alignment on vision and goals

    • As a leader, ensure you understand the importance of improving your PHO’s IA

    • Consult with diverse laterals to learn about common IA issues that your users experience

    • Create a human-centred strategy to improve current state IA and ensure iterative improvements with service rollouts

  • Evaluation and audit of current state

    • Document common IA issues by speaking with front-line staff

    • Use an established IA system to set a current state assessment of low-hanging improvements and hypotheses to test

  • Recruitment of representative audience

    • Pull in a diverse internal team to create a stakeholder user map

    • Define user groups or personas

    • Establish recruitment criteria so that your findings are robust and meet the needs of diverse audiences

  • User research

    • Carry out current state research with your diverse audiences, using methods like card sorting and tree jack

  • Prototyping of potential enhancements

    • Carry out 3-4 iterations of testing, prototyping to make improvements between each round

    • Ensure prototypes are low fidelity; this saves your team development time and prevents users from focusing on aesthetics as opposed to IA

    • Ensure there is a feedback capturing system for user complaints for future service enhancements

  • Delivery of information architecture

    • By this point, you should have robust, validated findings and an implementation roadmap


At PH1 Research, we’ve supported many PHOs with improving their IA and user experience. Our clients include the BC College of Nursing Professionals, BC Centre for Disease Control, the BC Lung Association, and many more. 

When you have questions about improving your PHO’s digital assets, IA, or user experience, contact us: info@ph1.ca.

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