Making it plain: Improving website navigation to help patients find the information they need

What happens when people can’t find the information they need on your website?

Do they call or email or send you messages (perhaps publicly) through social media? You probably hope they do — otherwise, they’ve given up and have gone elsewhere.

What if more people could find the information they needed to do business with you in less time — without all the waiting and support time? What if the number of calls and messages you received dropped by 5% or 15%? How much time and money would it save you in support costs? How many more customers would you be able to serve? How many fewer customers would you lose to competitors?

Your content is a business asset

If you haven’t given much thought to the economic impact of your organization’s content, let me give you an example of how user-focused content can help reduce support costs and have a positive influence on brand perception.

A few years ago I worked with GraceMed, a healthcare provider in Kansas, to redesign their website.

Now, GraceMed will see you as a patient no matter what kind of insurance you have. They’ll even see you if you don’t have any insurance. No matter your circumstances, you can get in to see a GraceMed provider, and you won’t go broke in the process.

This was a differentiator that I failed to highlight on the new site. Everyone within the organization knew it by heart and, in creating the new site, I internalized it as well. Rather than emphasize the fact that health insurance wasn’t an obstacle to seeing a provider, I adopted the old website’s pattern for communicating that information. It became a single line of text on a page labeled “Appointments,” much as it had been on the previous iteration of the website. 

The new site went public. Traffic and donations for the nonprofit increased. In many ways, the website was a success.

Then I noticed a troubling pattern.

Hiding in plain sight

Looking at the site’s search logs, I found lots of people searching for questions related to health insurance. I had also noticed people on Facebook asking whether GraceMed would see them if they didn’t have insurance.

“That’s odd. GraceMed takes all insurance — even people with no insurance. What question could anyone have about that?”

I still couldn’t see what would become obvious in hindsight. But I had a hunch something was wrong. To see if I was on to something, I ran a tree test.

A tree test is a usability study where people are asked to complete a task by clicking through a site’s navigation system. These are people who have never encountered the website in question, and the test shows only navigation labels — not the content of the pages. The goal is to assess how well people can find information within an existing hierarchy.

I set up the test to ask participants: You want to know if this health care provider accepts your insurance. Where would you go to find that information?

6% of participants successfully navigated to the page where they would have found health insurance information.

Here’s a closer look at the test results:


Control: 6% success rate

Average time to completion: 14.5 seconds

In this case, the correct path was to click “For Patients” and then “Appointments”.

The site was delivering a 94% fail rate on a topic that was essential to many prospective patients’ decision in choosing a provider.

Moreover, the average time to complete the task was 14.5 seconds.

That might not sound like a lot, but it’s an eternity online. 53% of mobile users abandon a site if it takes more than 3 seconds to load. Time-to-completion is a critical metric in reducing the number of people who migrate to more costly channels, like phone support.

The results meant that the client’s phone lines and other channels were likely being tied up with people calling to find the answer to this simple but important question. Customer service representatives who could have been answering more complex questions that only a human being can adequately address were instead answering questions that could have quickly been answered online. It also meant prospective patients had to wait to get the answer they needed until regular business hours when people were on hand to respond to their question.

And that’s assuming that everyone who failed to find the answer through the website persisted in their search. At least some percentage of that 96% were likely giving up and searching for other providers.

Fees and health insurance

As these results were coming in, we were also planning a new page on the site that would include a fee calculator for patients. I could see from the site’s analytics that people were often seeking information about fees and health insurance — and the topics were closely related. So we included health insurance information on the fees page, creating a new page called Fees and Health Insurance”.

A sharp increase in success rate

With the new page in place, it was time to verify whether we had fixed the problem, so I ran another tree test. (Assumptions got us into the predicament, so I wasn’t going to make more as we tried to fix it.)

The success rate increased to 65%, and the average time to completion dropped to 10.6 seconds.

Success Rate

Here’s a look at the paths participants took upon introducing the Fees/Health Insurance page:


Treatment: 65% success rate

Average time to completion: 10.6 seconds

Some participants still sought health insurance information on the “medical” page of the site. This suggests there may be a natural linking opportunity to direct people from there to the new fees/health insurance page.

User testing provides a more human picture

Like other quantitative research methods, tree studies show you things related to what people are doing but not why. It won’t give you a window into what people are thinking or how they’re feeling and feeling is a critical ingredient to how people develop opinions about brands.

So I ran some remote user tests to watch and listen to people as they completed the task.

Here’s a video showing three user testing participants completing the task before introducing the fees/insurance page:

And here you can see people successfully finding the information after introducing the new page:

Even just a few minutes watching and hearing real people as they try to complete a task gives us a glimpse of what it might be like for people who are actually ill or have a sick loved one to encounter friction and uncertainty when seeking answers about health care. As much as design research can help us improve digital products, it also reminds us of the ultimate goal — to help real people solve real problems.

Design is what happens when you’re busy helping others make their own plans

If there’s some blindingly simple fact about your company that you’re sure everyone knows — take another look. See how people are using your products and look for patterns of need. Your content has an impact on your operations and your bottom line. The people evaluating your products and services are looking for content that helps them make decisions quickly.

Everyone is on their way to somewhere else. Someone with a toothache looking for an affordable dentist doesn’t have the time or attention to read between the lines. A mother shopping for her child’s Christmas gifts online wants to get it done before her daughter wakes up from her nap. Pick any scenario. The companies people are most willing to do business with are those that respect their time and make their lives easier.

Case StudyKyle BowenGraceMed