Cancer.gov puts ease of use front and center
- By Amanda Ziadeh
- Mar 04, 2016
Anyone who has searched for information on cancer has discovered there’s so much data available that it’s difficult to find what you’re looking for.
The National Cancer Institute, not surprisingly, has that problem in spades.
At NCI, the 24,000 pages of information for researchers, oncologists, policy makers, patients and caregivers made Cancer.gov one of the largest repositories of evidence-based cancer information. But that breadth and depth of knowledge made navigating the site difficult for the different audiences that wanted access to separate slices of the site’s holdings.
To address the needs of the various audiences, a new website was designed that would reorganize content and navigation, allow content experts to update the site, and provide easy tools for content syndication -- all in a design that worked across mobile and desktop platforms.
According to Sapient’s Lindsay Burack, NCI and Sapient, its technology consultant, tested iterations of the site with patients, caregivers, health professionals, researchers, advocates and policymakers to find the content-heavy areas that could cause confusion and to check the new ways of displaying information.
NCI also wanted to reorganize the content so visitors could easily navigate the site. To do this, Sapient’s team started by immersing themselves in the content. “Knowing it so well, we were able to create structured content types within our content management system,” Burack explained.
A content type works as a reusable template or preconfigured group of settings to easily organize different kinds of information -- documents vs. datasets vs. image files, for example. Defining content types allows publishers to receive specific metadata and assign certain editing tools, sharing tools, display forms and management policies.
NCI already had the Percussion CMS in place, but Sapient’s team built new content types to accommodate the restructured information. The templates also eased the publishing process. New content would automatically publish based on its content type. This way, the subject experts can focus on the information itself.
NCI also wanted to syndicate its content to third-party sites and include outside content.
Cancer.gov already provided researchers with downloadable XML-format files of cancer data and access to its Physician Data Query (PDQ) database, but Sapient had to work with developers to integrate the PDQ content with the existing CMS platform. The goal was to make sure “it looks like it’s all part of the same site,” Burack said.
Cancer.gov now syndicates “by default,” said Lakshmi Grama, acting associate director for dissemination and digital communications at NCI. That means all the site’s content is available for use through a platform that helps website managers import content from participating HHS websites directly into their own sites or applications.
Grama said this will easily allow people that want to use NCI content to find the data, obtain a piece of code and put it on their website. The team is also working to create dynamic content APIs within the HHS content syndication framework.
Another part of transforming Cancer.gov ensuring that content is usable, accessible and consumable across multiple digital platforms, according to Ravee Kurian, vice president of Sapient Government Services. “We’ve been working with NCI to make that transition as well,” he said.
For example, site traffic and metrics showed that Cancer.gov was almost equally split between desktop visitors and mobile device users, so Sapient and NCI used responsive design to make content easy to read on all screens.
Thus far, the revamp has helped to reduce NCI’s web footprint, consolidate content, remove outdated information and transfer all NCI office sites to the CMS. Those 24,000-plus pages have been winnowed to 6,000. User feedback and analytics will continue to inform further improvements.
NCI and Sapient agree that integrated teams, both within each organization and with each other, were key components of this project. According to Grama, NCI brought internal content editors, subject matter experts, designers and developers together while keeping all other staffers in the know about the changes being made.
Kurian concurred that having the NCI and Sapient work closely together was critical. “We require that the government be active, engaged, mobilized and work with contractors to solve the problem,” he said.
“It just goes to show that digital innovation doesn’t just reside in the private sector,” Burack said. "Our new Cancer.gov demonstrates how government entities are really furthering innovation and building transformative solutions for the public."
Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.