User Experience Design for Health-related Websites: 5 Do’s and Don’ts

February 1, 2011

It’s no secret: the Internet is a highly effective channel for health-related businesses and organizations to communicate with their key audiences. After 10 years of research with patients, physicians, and other healthcare professionals, we’ve seen things that work and things that really don’t work when designing the User Experience (UX) of health-related websites.

Today’s healthcare consumers are smarter than ever, and they tend to be confident and curious using the web to learn about their health. Ten years ago when we did usability research, the average consumer was in the early stages of learning how to find reliable information online (and learning how to judge if it was “reliable”). Today when we interview healthcare consumers, most people understand that the Internet won’t replace the care of a healthcare professional – but it’s a great place to start, and an effective tool for learning more about the health topics they are interested in.

Health professionals’ attitudes toward the Internet are varied. Ten years ago, the physicians we interviewed for our research were often frustrated when patients did their own online research (a heart surgeon once said, “The Internet can’t tell my patients anything I couldn’t tell them!”). Some of those attitudes still exist, but the majority of the newest generation of physicians recognize that the Internet can be a helpful tool for their patients, and can make doctor’s jobs easier, when done right.

After many many interviews with patients, physicians, and other healthcare professionals over the years, we’ve identified a few key do’s and don’ts:

1. Health Information for Patients

  • DO provide detailed health information so a curious healthcare consumer can feel like he or she is really learning something new. Be sure to follow best practices in usability and web writing.
  • DON’T assume patients just want the dumbed-down version of information. These days, they can sense when content has been over-simplified. If they don’t find the information they need on sites that are tailored to patients, they will seek out information targeted to professionals – which is likely to result in a less-than-ideal user experience.

2. Health Information for Physicians

  • DO provide detailed information, with a focus on data and efficacy. Content must follow best practices in web writing, and include visual content (charts and graphs) whenever possible. Anticipate that patients will also read information labeled “for doctors” (some patients will actually seek this out to get the “inside scoop,” especially when researching a new treatment for a condition).
  • DON’T provide content for health professionals that could be perceived as “marketing.” Physicians don’t want to be sold to, and are easily turned off by content that seems to be promoting a new treatment or product.

3. Social Media and Communities

  • DO use social media tools, but use them sparingly and in conjunction with a thoughtful social media strategy. A surprising number of health-related sites have calls-to-action like, “follow us on Twitter!” and “Share this Article on Facebook!” Yet, most people who are researching their health are doing so for a personal reason, and they rarely want to advertise what they are researching. Instead, health-related sites should focus on adding value to users through community-oriented features and discussions – but there must be a way for users to browse and comment anonymously, or they are less likely to participate.
  • DON’T bombard users with social media calls-to-action that don’t resonate with them. Even the most active Facebook user is probably not going to “friend” the latest medicine their doctor prescribed to them, or tweet a link to the treatment for snoring they just learned about.

4. Page Layout

  • DO follow best practices in page layout. When it comes to scanning pages and clicking links, people seeking healthcare information are like seekers of other types of information. They want scannable content with a clear visual hierarchy to help them navigate – bold sub-heads and bullet lists are especially helpful in creating a user-friendly page structure. Also, confirm that the pages print well, especially websites targeted to patients. If the site does its job, the patient will print out pages to show their doctor or family members.
  • DON’T use the right column for important information. Generally speaking, users ignore areas of the page that typically contain ads, such as the right column. Also, don’t write health-related content pages with dead-ends. When patients are in research mode, they are more likely to read in a specific linear order than other types of users. To avoid dead-ends on content pages, seek opportunities to place links at the bottom of the body copy, such as “NEXT: Treatment Options for [Condition].”

5. Visual Elements

  • DO design pages with an emphasis on informational visuals (such as anatomical illustrations), and use video and animation whenever possible. Keep in mind that patients remember just a fraction of what they are told in a doctor’s office. Animation and video can go a long way in helping a patient understand a condition or treatment.
  • DON’T mix images and calls-to-action. Most people will completely overlook “ad-like” content – and it is hard to pair up a thumbnail image with a call-to-action without it looking like an ad. Also, don’t fill the pages with photos of smiling “healthy” people. One or two are fine, but too much emphasis makes users suspicious.

By Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.

View Mahtab's Bio

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