I lost my mother to lung cancer in 2015. About 4 months passed between the time she told me about her cancer and the day she died. It was a fast and terrible ordeal.
My mother placed a lot of trust in me during her battle with lung cancer, so she looked to me to help her make decisions about treatment. Sometimes, I feel that if I had not allowed her doctor to push us into treatment so quickly, I could have elongated and/or improved the quality of her life during those final months. Her doctor, who on paper was extremely qualified, made it seem like if we didn’t do something to treat the cancer immediately, she would die from complications caused by the cancer. For the record, it’s really hard to sift through information from other cancer treatment hospitals/institutes when you’ve been told that your mother could die any minute unless you take action.
You’re probably wondering why I started this UX case study with this immensely personal information. My third project for the General Assembly UX Design Immersive was about Information Architecture. My cohort was tasked with analyzing the website of a non-profit cancer research and treatment organization. We applied a number of analytical methods in our review of the website in order to determine whether or not the information on the site was organized well enough for users to easily navigate it.
Had I been a participant for any usability testing for this website, I probably would have shared the story about my mom with the UX researcher conducting the test. And it probably would have made them really think about the way the site was designed. Unfortunately, I highly doubt they hired a UX designer, let alone a UX researcher, to work on the website.
We had about 7 deliverables for this project. I am listing them below in the order in which it made sense [to me] to go about working on the project:
- Site map of the current website (learn what content is on the website and where it lives)
- Task Flow
- User Flow
- Open and closed card sorting (answer the question: “Is it just me or is this website a mess?”)
- Heuristic Evaluation of three (3) pages (i.e., do these pages work for the user)
- Competitive and Comparative Feature Analysis (what are others operating in this space or adjacent spaces doing?)
- Revised sitemap (improve the organization of information on the site.)
This project was all about learning the techniques of reviewing the information architecture of a website. The purpose was purely to learn, understand, and practice these techniques. That said, we did not conduct any user interviews, usability tests, create personas, etc. In real life, I would have gone through the critical user research cycle, which would of course had a major impact on the final design of the website.
To put it lightly, the website is pretty bad. A lot of information is thrown at you on the homepage. Important information is on the secondary and tertiary levels of the website. Information meant for doctors, patients, and students is all mixed together. There are two pages dedicated to giving and volunteering. I mean, it’s a mess.
Going to the website over the course of 8 days and examining it was no small feat. The website is dense. Can you imagine someone with cancer, or with a loved one who has cancer, sifting through a really dense website for information?
TASK AND USER FLOW
The task and user flows for this site were the easiest part for me. They were actually the last thing I did for this assignment. Once I went through the work of understanding the layout and content of the site, it was clear to see the different paths a user could take complete a task on the site.
For my deliverable, I chose the basic task of finding a clinical trial for a particular type of brain tumor. It was easy enough to find a clinical trial, and the task flow was very direct. However, in order for the user to take advantage of the task flow or “happy path,” they would need to first see the “diseases we treat” drop down on the homepage, as well as understand that this section also led to a list of clinical trials applicable to that particular brain tumor. Unless a user knew this, they would end up on a much more involved path to finding a clinical trial.
OPEN AND CLOSED CARD SORTING
For a card sort, the UX Designer would put the names of content on index cards, and have users organize the card in categories that make sense to the user. For the open card sort, the user defines the categories; in a closed card sort, the categories are taken from existing categories on the website.
The card sort was probably the only fun part of this project. It was interesting to see how users chose to sort the content. It was also interesting to see their frustration with the types of content and categories available in the closed card sort. I was not surprised by most of the card sorting trends. Even upon my review of the website, the need for only one section dedicated to giving and volunteering was needed.
We were required to use the Abby method for completing the heuristic evaluation. I have developed a reputation for skipping ahead in my cohort. Living up to that reputation, I went ahead and reviewed some heuristics methodologies before the lecture on heuristics. I have to say, I was not a fan of the Abby method. I thought it was more cumbersome than other methods, and I had a hard time connecting the questions asked in the Abby method with the website. I felt like many of the questions weren’t applicable to the website, and I was trying harder than I should have in order to find a connection.
The heuristic analysis also has a mind numbing effect. I spread out the analysis over a couple of days so that I could have a break from it and switch gears. I am eager to try other heuristics methods. I’ll see if Abby was to blame for my difficulty, or if heuristics analysis is just meant to be tough.
COMPETITIVE AND COMPARATIVE FEATURE ANALYSIS
I found three competitive cancer institutions and one comparative institution to compare with our assigned website. A comparator is a business that does not operate in the same problem space, but does have a similar business model.
It was enlightening to look at the features of the websites of these different institutions. Just visiting the competitor website put me in a different emotional state. It was also easier to find information. Certain competitors even had a separate site for patients, physicians, and students. It also stands out to me that the phone number to talk to someone 24/7 was prominently displayed on the upper right-hand corner. I mean, of course, because when you’re dealing with life and death, maybe you don’t want to deal with navigating even a simple website. Maybe you just want to talk to a kind person who will tell you what you need to know.
By far, the most pleasant part of this project. This is where you get to synthesize the information gathered from the above UX analytical methods and implement them in the sitemap. After all that work, you see how the site should be laid out.
As one can imagine, dealing with the website for project 3, which for some reason had lots of images of cancer patients, was almost really hard for me, for many reasons. This project made me confront the grief that I had pushed aside in so many ways.
The 3 years leading up to my career change had both misery and joy. Pivoting back and forth between those two extremes, and being occupied by feeling misery which was caused by one specific constant in my life, I didn’t contemplate my mom’s death as much as I needed to to. I had grieved, but it had been in fits and starts.
So how did I make it through this project? First, I developed my problem statement: How might I move past my grief so that I can complete my project on time? Then, I iterated on my grief. I used UX principles to re-examine it and allow myself to revisit the internal narrative I had composed regarding my mother’s battle with cancer. It was truly a cathartic process.
To me, UX design is the art of research and iteration. As a life-long lover of research and analysis, the research part was easy for me to grasp. The iteration part is new to me, and I immediately recognize the power in iteration. Iteration is inviting yourself to take another look. What did you miss the last time you looked? How can you make this better? Applying this to my grieving process helped me see past it, and not just in the sense that I was able to do my work.
Lastly, I had a just little empathy for myself. Then I used all the empathy I had left for the users who might someday or are currently navigating the cancer treatment and research institution website we were assigned.
Project 3 was hard on me mentally, physically, and emotionally. Aside from the emotional upheaval, I’m still trying to catch up on lost sleep. But it was also good for me; maybe even great for me. Not only did it help me get past some inner blocks, but it helped me better articulate why I chose UX Design as my new career: because I want to shape the way humans interact with technology and their physical space. Yes, interactions should be delightful and fun, but sometimes delight isn’t enough. Sometimes interactions have a direct impact on life and deeper implications.