The Right Information

by Jared M. Spool
on June 28, 2005

Visitors to, the home page for the Department of Nutrition at Penn State’s College of Health & Human Development, immediately discover a prominent option to watch a video. To view the video, they need to make a choice between “Low-Bandwidth” and “High-Bandwidth”.

Department of Nutrition at Penn State homepage video

The Department of Nutrition Home Page invites visitors to watch a video, which comes in two formats. Do they have the right information to decide which format to watch?

Even though choices like these are commonplace on the Internet, are users prepared to choose confidently? “Bandwidth” may not be a familiar technical term. Even if the user knows what it means, how do they decide if they qualify for a high-bandwidth option versus going with low bandwidth? Do they know the risks of making the wrong choice?

We’ve seen in our research that, when faced with cryptic, jargon-ridden choices, users are frightened to make a choice. They may skip past the video because it feels like the safest approach: you can’t break something if you don’t do anything.

Unfortunately, the Department of Nutrition site doesn’t present much information to help users choose. Besides “low-bandwidth” and “high-bandwidth” labels, the only other information the site displays is the file size: 6.6mb and 28mb. This information will likely present little comfort to people who feel threatened by technology.

Delivering the Right Information

In our work, we often see sites make a similar mistake. They deliver information to the users, but it’s not the *right* information. The absence of the right information takes many forms, but it always has the same results—users can’t accomplish their goals.

An interesting attribute of the “video choice” problem is that it’s a problem that the site designers are unlikely to spot by just inspecting the site themselves. After all, they understand what the differences are between the two options and are likely confident enough to know which choice to make.

Is an average visitor to the site going to have the same confidence as the designers? The Department of Nutrition staff created the video to entice prospective undergraduate students into the school’s nutrition programs. Most users are high-school aged children, many of whom are unfamiliar with the specifications of the computer technology. They may not know whether they have a high-speed connection or how fast their processor is.

So, how does the interested high school student decide which flavor of video to watch? Do they know what the difference is? Their lack of understanding may cause them to wonder. Is the low-bandwidth option shorter because it is missing potentially valuable info? Are they going to break their computer if they watch the high-bandwidth version and the computer can’t handle it?

Ironically, the choices aren’t that useful. The only difference between the two flavors is the size of image (240×180 pixels versus 640×480 pixels). The 28MB file will download easily on a broadband connection, such as a cable modem or DSL, whereas the 6.6mb will be far too slow on the fastest of dialup options. If you’re on a broadband connection, it doesn’t matter which you choose. If you’re on a dialup, both will like have a “studdering effect” if you don’t download the film first.

If the designers feel a choice is important, what information could they have provided to help the users choose? Could they describe the conditions that make each choice optimal (such as say “Perfect for high speed connections” or “Ideal if you use a dialup line”)? Could they add any information to help cautious technology-fearing folk feel comfortable with watching the movie?

Revealing Costs and Benefits

Providing the right information means helping users with their choices. Only by watching users are they likely to see information is missing. Video choice is just one problem the Department of Nutrition designers may need to address. Another potential problem is helping visitors decide to watch the video in the first place.

The page does little to describe the value of the video. The only clues as to its content are a couple of taglines, “Developing nutrition leaders of the future” and “Basic & Applied Sciences for a Variety of Careers”, and the prompt “View the video to see more about our program.” Is this enough information to help a visitor decide if the video is worth watching?

Watching a video can be an investment—it takes time to download and receive the content. Because there’s no mention of the video’s length, the user can’t assess how big their investment will be. We’ve seen, in a similar situation, users assume a video is 30 minutes, because that’s what the average length of an American network television program. If a Department of Nutrition visitor automatically made this assumption, they might decide not to watch it, even though the actual length is slightly less than seven minutes—a fact easily added to the site.

Even if users knew the time, they don’t know what they’d learn. When we watched the video, we learned it covered a wide range of topics, including:

  • The different programs offered for undergrads
  • The extensive hands-on laboratory experience available to students
  • How the faculty is very accessible and friendly
  • How well the programs prepare students for careers in medicine, dentistry, clinical nutrition, and nutrition education

If an interested student knew the video talked about these areas in detail, would they be more likely to choose to watch it? It would be easy for the designers to describe the video highlights, making the benefits of investing the time clearer to the user.

Building User Confidence

For every link on the site, designers need to ask themselves, “What information does the user require to feel confident that this link is worthy of clicking?”

For example, the page describing the options for undergraduate degrees has three main choices: the Applied Sciences major, the Basic Sciences major, and a minor in general nutrition.

Penn State Undergraduate Degree Options

Prospective applicants have two options for majors in nutritional studies and one minor. Do the link descriptions help users build confidence to click?

Users like getting their first click right. Our studies consistently show that users don’t like bouncing back and forth between different links on a page. Does the content on this page help potential students identify which option suits them best, so they’ll be most excited about the first link they click?

To accomplish this, visitors must feel comfortable with the information on the page. Is it possible a high school student, just starting their college search, will not be familiar with the distinction between a major and a minor? Will they understand the advantages of choosing a major in another subject, say chemistry, and a minor in nutrition versus choosing a major in nutrition with an emphasis in chemistry?

For these students, college represents a very unfamiliar world. Have the designers done everything they can to help the users proceed through the site with confidence?

Transforming Droll into Enticing

The two options for majors also assume visitors are familiar with details of an education in nutrition. Each major has its advantages, yet, are they clear to the prospective students?

For example, the site claims that graduates completing the Applied Sciences option would meet the American Dietetic Association’s Didactic Program in Dietetics (ADA-DPD) academic requirements. Would a prospective undergraduate understand why this is important? Does this make the program sound more enticing to potential applicants?

If the Penn State designers wanted to deliver the right information about ADA-DPD accreditation, what are their options?

It turns out the web site designers of Syracuse University’s equivalent nutrition program dedicate an entire page describing the significance of this program.

Syracuse's Didactic Program

A competitive program at Syracuse University describes the importance of ADA-DPD accreditation.

In contrast, the College of Saint John’s simply describes their program this way:

“The Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) provides all the academic preparation for a career in dietetics but without the professional practice hours. The professional experience is obtained following through an accredited internship.

“The DPD is a good choice for students wishing to pursue a minor or coursework, or for students who want the nutrition background to use in another health care career.”

In fact, a quick Google search for “didactic program in dietetics” reveals hundreds of different descriptions. Starting with these descriptions as inspiration, the Penn State designers could employ usability testing to determine the right information for their visitors.

When trying to identify the right content, designers must focus on what users are trying to accomplish. They need to look at the entire spectrum of the user’s objective, from the high-level goals (“Do I want to study nutrition at Penn State?”) to the low-level, nitty-gritty details (“When the site says ‘up to 3 credits can be 496’ for the supporting courses, what does that mean?”).

(The answer: it means the student can take a maximum of three credits worth of graduate-level independent study courses. Isn’t that easier to understand? The students we asked thought so. In fact, several were excited about taking independent study courses. “496 credits” didn’t get them nearly as excited.)

Stepping Up to the Challenge of Clear Communication

It seems that putting information on a site is easy. However, delivering the right information is much harder. When specifying the site’s information architecture, designers need to look beyond the navigation and links, and think about how the user is going to use the information to accomplish their objectives.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.