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State Department of Health Website Gives New Look to Vital Information

Website redesign uses small-town map in attempt to improve user friendliness

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Until this summer, learning about state public health efforts meant a slog through a cluttered and outdated New Jersey Department of Health website. But this experience should become increasingly user-friendly thanks to an ongoing redesign of the site.

The new homepage is organized around the information that visitors most commonly searched for on the old site. It’s also intended to help the state achieve its goal of having a nationally accredited health department by making more state health information easily accessible to the public.

There’s a heavy emphasis on providing timely, easy-to-navigate information, features that helped another branch of state government -- the New Jersey Judiciary -- win national recognition yesterday from the Forum for the Advancement of Court Technology as one of the top10 court websites in the country.

Gone are the small photographs, long lists of trending topics, and clusters of buttons and tabs that made up the Department of Health’s former homepage. In their place are a few, brightly colored subject-area tabs, which bring together previously separate programs and data.

“We really recognize the need to be more consumer responsive,” said Mary E. O’Dowd, the state health commissioner. She said that despite cosmetic changes through the years, this was the first complete overhaul of the basic functions of the site since the mid-1990s.

At the forefront of the changes is an attempt to make the site easier to navigate and search. With so many different tabs on the old homepage, users frequently turned to the search function to find information, but many -- including O’Dowd -- turned instead to Google to find state information, since the site’s search engine frequently returned results that weren’t useful.

In the redesign, there are five main topics in tabs at the top of the page, each of which lead to more detailed information. For example, the “Your Health” tab leads to a list of sites with information on topics ranging from the flu to rabies.

National health advocates have urged agencies involved in public health to make changes that are reflected in the New Jersey site. For example, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report on health literacy said well-designed sites can help residents who would otherwise struggle to get information.

“Clearly written content, uncluttered web sites, and simple navigation dramatically improve the performance and experience of web users, including those with limited literacy skills,” according to the federal report.

O’Dowd said the old design was largely based on how the state Department of Health was organized, rather than how residents use the site. One difference she cited was how the site linked to vital records. On the old home page, one of many small tabs led to vital records. Now, vital records has one of the largest tabs on the new page, because it’s the most frequently used information on the site, she said.

Much work remains to be done, with the department one year into a two-and-a-half-year redesign project. Many links lead back to pages that use the old design. But state officials are pointing to the Healthy New Jersey 2020 page as representative of the new design.

Healthy New Jersey 2020 is the state plan to improve residents’ health and prevent diseases through the end of the decade. The department used the redesign as an opportunity to update how it provides information about the plan. The primary feature of the new site is a stylized, clickable small town “map.” When a user clicks on each section of the map, links to related topics appear.

For example, clicking on a public park with a “Jersey Fresh” food stand leads to an “obesity challenge.” That link provides the most recent statistics on the state’s progress in meeting the goals it set in 2010 to achieve by 2020. If a user clicks on a chart indicating that the state is backtracking on its goal of preventing an increase in obesity among high-schoolers, another chart appears that shows racial disparities.

The new design makes it quicker and easier to see changes in the data, according to state officials.

Improving public access to health information will also aid the department’s quest to become one of the first states in the country with a nationally accredited health department, O’Dowd said.

“You can see how the state is meeting health objectives and, quite frankly, what our objectives are,” O’Dowd said.

Two large boxes dominate the home page. One includes a rotating series of news items, while the other rotates major public health initiatives like Healthy New Jersey 2020.

The page also has a prominent link to the state site for palliative and end-of-life care, which was expanded and revised earlier this year. O’Dowd said the prominence of this link was due to the large amount of traffic the page is generating -- perhaps a positive sign that the state’s efforts to initiate a dialogue among healthcare providers, patients, and families are showing results.

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