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Project of Week – Healthfinder.gov

I ran into healthfinder.gov a few months back and I thought it was a fascinating government-sponsored health site with a really innovative model of how it syndicates content.

Thus, I reached out to here a little more about the project and here we go…Thanks to HHS team for taking the time to tell us the scoop.

1. Tell me about the healthfinder.gov project. What is the concept behind it? What does it entail?

Healthfinder.gov is an award-winning prevention and wellness Web site that links consumers and professionals to reliable health and human services information from the Federal government and its many partners. The site was re-designed in 2008 based on formative and usability research with over 700 people including those with limited health literacy. As a result, the site is more user-friendly and focuses on understandable and actionable prevention and wellness information and tools. healthfinder.gov has several new features, including The Quick Guide to Healthy Living.

The Quick Guide to Health Living offers basic, easy-to-understand information and action steps on 80+ prevention and wellness topics. Each topic is reviewed by subject-matter experts from the Federal Government and is updated every 6 months. The Quick Guide was created and tested with input from hundreds of Web users with limited literacy skills, earning it the 2010 ClearMark Award for best plain language Public Sector Web site.

This year, the healthfinder.gov content syndication tool was launched. Content syndication is a form of syndication in which Web site content is made available to multiple other sites. The tool provides a way for healthfinder.gov content to be placed onto other web sites. Rather than linking to healthfinder.gov, users can pull content while keeping visitors on their site. The syndicated content is automatically updated in real-time requiring no maintenance from staff of other sites to keep the pages up to date. Users can also control which pages and content from healthfinder.gov to use on their site and can be presented on the use sites to match the look and feel of their Web site. Syndication benefits both the Web sites providing information and the Web sites displaying it. For the receiving site (users), content syndication is an effective way of adding greater depth and immediacy of information to its pages, making it more attractive to users. It allows users to add easy-to-read, actionable and accurate information, vetted by experts across government, to their Web sites without having to spend extra budget or staff time. Users don’t have to monitor the content or copy updates. The syndicated content is automatically updated in real-time requiring no maintenance from staff of other sites to keep the pages up to date. Users can also control which pages and content from healthfinder.gov to display on their site and where it appears. The healthfinder.gov content can be customized to match the look and feel of the receiving Web site to create a seamless experience for the end user.

For the transmitting site, syndication drives exposure across numerous online platforms. This generates new traffic for the transmitting site and increases reach. From our perspective, this allows healthfinder.gov to disseminate up-to-date, accurate and timely prevention information to our partners and the general public, and increase awareness and reach of healthfinder.gov. This also allows us to reach our audiences where they are – on the Web sites of local health departments, non-profit organizations and other Web sites instead of requiring them to come find us.

2. When was it officially launched? Can you share some of your statistics of its success?

Healthfinder.gov was launched in 1997, and then re-designed in 2008. In March, healthfinder.gov received 857,105 visits – a 27% increase from this time last year.

The content syndication feature of healthfinder.gov was launched in November 2010, following a soft launch/pilot program syndicating content to three organizations.

By the end of March, there were 248 total organizations syndicating healthfinder.gov content—a 33% increase since February. Most healthfinder.gov content syndication users are non-profits and private companies, but the list also includes universities, blogs and health Web sites, and state and local health departments.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) was one of the first groups to pilot the content syndication tool. NHLBI displayed their pilot feed prominently on their Employee Wellness and Health Promotion page. Tracking has shown that the Eat Healthy topic is an audience favorite, along with Get Active and Watch Your Weight. In the future, this data could potentially help the NHLBI choose similar topics to continue supplying their audience with the content they want most. And since traffic to each syndicated topic can be aggregated, ODPHP will have new insight into how its content is being accessed. This could potentially inform the creation of new health promotion topics in the future.

3. Our readers always love the specifics of what it took for key projects. Can you describe what technology you used? Also the resources used to make the project happen?

healthfinder.gov’s content syndication enables users to display healthfinder.gov content on their Web sites by simply adding a JavaScript code to the user’s site that retrieves the content. healthfinder.gov then assigns a unique ID to the user that is used for tracking and metrics purposes. This unique ID allows healthfinder.gov to measure traffic generated to syndicated content on the other sites.

Users will always have the latest content and they do not need to grab new code to get it, as the tool is set up to update automatically. Any updates made to healthfinder.gov’s Quick Guide to Healthy Living will automatically be pushed to the user’s Web site, so the tool requires no maintenance by the user. Updates reflect latest disease prevention recommendations and biannual subject matter expert reviews, giving the user and Web site audience instant access to timely, credible information.

Currently, content managers display content on their site through the use of an iframe. This approach works well for many content managers who simply want to copy and paste code into a template to quickly begin displaying new content on their Web site. However, we learned from experience that some users prefer to have even more control over the content. In response, we are converting the Quick Guide to Healthy Living into an XML feed that will be offered as an additional content syndication option. This future innovation will not only give content managers the ability to display new content on their Web site, it will give creative Web developers a data set to use in new and interesting ways, thereby further expanding ODPHP’s content reach.

The technical platform for syndication was envisioned as a new output to an existing application, rather than an entirely new application. This allowed the development team to spend more time making the interface easy-to-use rather than hooking up databases and other backend tasks inherent in new application development. The tool achieved pilot-ready status in less than eight weeks of development time. Feedback from the pilot programs was captured along the way, becoming the basis for interface improvements and additional enhancements. By using existing code and gathering feedback, ODPHP has been able to keep costs low while building capacity to dramatically expand ODPHP’s Web presence as more organizations use the content syndication tool.

We were supported in the development of this tool, including design, programming, coding and tutorial content, by our contractor, IQ Solutions.

4. What has surprised you the most by the reaction? What parts of the project are most popular with citizens? Items less popular than you thought?

What has surprised us most about the project is the types of organizations using the tool—namely that about a quarter of them are private companies. We were not surprised, however, to see that our more broad health topics with wide appeal such as “Eat Healthy” and “Get Active” are most commonly syndicated. Interestingly, topics related to obesity and heart health are not as popular. Instead, breast cancer and colon cancer are more commonly syndicated topics—possibly given their connection to prominent national health observances.

We have been happy with the number of organizations who have already embraced this health tool, and we look forward to continuing to watch its use grow.

5. What’s your advice to a senior leader who is thinking about launching a similar collaborative/innovation initiative in their agency? Why should you do it? How do you get buy-in with program offices? What are the best practices/ Potential problems to avoid?

We began the development of content syndication with an environmental scan to see what other federal agencies, non-profits, and commercial organizations were doing. This helped to inform our first lesson learned, which was the interface had to be easy-to-use to accommodate different levels of technical expertise. We knew from initial feedback from our pilot organizations that allowing content managers to control the look and feel of their feeds (so as to match their own Web site’s template) would be a high priority for anyone using the tool. Our second lesson learned (that content managers want some level of control) led to the creation of a feature that allows managers to upload their own CSS file so their syndication display matches the look and feel of their own Web site. At all times, content managers will have full control over the type of content they want, as well as the look and feel of it.

Internally, one of the key obstacles to overcome was how to incorporate the Quick Guide to Healthy Living into a display that would work well for all Web sites, while still adhering to the integrity of the plain-language, easy-to-use approach and usability-friendly design that has made the Quick Guide to Healthy Living a successful Web application. The Web version of the Quick Guide to Healthy Living is based on feedback from over 700 users. Our goal was to ensure the functionality of a content syndication feed remained in alignment with original user research of the Web-based version. In order to stay true to the spirit of the current tabbed design, while building in enough flexibility for various Web templates to syndicate content, we created an output that relies on simple text links for navigating main sections and dynamic updates to the page to display content underneath the main navigation links. This allows for a seamless experience within the content manager’s Web site template. The response from our pilot organizations has been positive.

Other government Web teams could use content syndication to disseminate their own content and provide up-to-date, accurate and timely messages to partners and the general public, and increase awareness of and exposure to their work. CDC has also released a beta version of a content syndication tool (http://tools.cdc.gov/register) that allows users to syndicate content from CDC.gov. The healthfinder.gov content syndication tool was designed to be user-friendly, allowing individuals not as familiar with Web technologies to syndicate content in three easy steps. Other agencies could replicate the healthfinder.gov content syndication tool or use it as a template for building their own tools to help expand the reach of their content.

Overall, we expect the exposure of ODPHP content to new audiences, along with discoveries gained about how audiences are accessing that content, to be well worth the development investment.

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Sterling Whitehead

Interesting. I don’t know if I would or would not include myself in this group, but some people would argue healthfinder.gov is government competing with the private sector on tools such as WebMD.

Jessica Mark

Thanks for your comment, Sterling. We’ve thought about that a lot ourselves. We actually did a major overhaul of the site in 2008 so that instead of trying to be the end-all-be-all in health or a gov version of WebMD, we focus strictly on prevention and how to be healthy and stay healthy. There are millions of places where you can find information about different diseases. But really quality prevention information that’s grounded in evidence and the latest science, while still being user-friendly, appropriate for low-health literacy audiences and actionable – we think that’s harder to find, and we see that as our niche. I’d love to hear your thoughts, though, if you see it differently. We’re always looking for ways to add value in an obviously crowded marketplace.


My other sense would be:

Government shouldn’t compete directly but it is more meaningful when comes from a .gov and official gov’t view on a topic – such as CDC on the flu for example VS webmd on the flu.

I think a good harmony is kind of like healthfinder where they let others including private sector use the data/information in other formats. So people can get in a variety of formats in a bunch of places

Sterling Whitehead

@Jessica, that helps and it’s a good strategy to focus on that niche area. The site doesn’t state that in the introduction section. The intro section says that we help you and your loved ones stay healthy; however, I automatically thought that WebMD did that too, so I though that the HealthFinder.gov was simply a government clone of WebMD. Now if the site said, “Nobody, not even WebMD, does this as well as we do”, then you demonstrate your value by separating yourself from what I assumed was your competitor.

Doug Snyder

Informative website – I agree about “variety” & “formats in a bunch of places” – thanks for sharing this.