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Office of Communications & Public Liaison

Developing Web Sites at NIH

Official OD/OCPL Web Guidance from the On-Line Information Branch

The NIH Office of Communication and Public Liaison (OCPL) has broad responsibility for fostering effective NIH communications efforts. To help improve the overall quality of online communications, we have prepared the following guidance to help those tasked with creating, managing, or redesigning NIH websites.

  • Sites aimed at specific groups, such as physicians, parents, advocacy and community groups, or an interested segment of the public, allow for tailoring and incorporation of common elements appropriate for each audience.
  • Once a target audience is determined and a new website is deemed necessary, it is important that all elements of the new site focus on the central theme and target audience to ensure continuity in the site's message and delivery.
  • If a target audience cannot be determined, a new website might not be appropriate.

Paramount to these efforts is ensuring that new websites clearly define their target audience. By taking these steps, our customers are given the best web experience possible.

While much of the information below is intended for an NIH audience, follow this link for one of the best general resources for information about building and maintaining federal websites External Web Site Policy.

The framework for building sites successfully at NIH is found in the answers to the following questions:

1. What skills should be included or utilized when developing a website?

Most NIH sites are developed and maintained by Web teams, which can vary in size from one or two to many FTE's depending on the size and complexity of the site (as well as the resource limitations of your parent organization.)

Many specialized skills are required to create a professional quality website, some of which may be filled by the same person. Your development team may include government and/or contract employees. To build, launch, promote, and maintain your site, typically, you will need team members who can fill the following roles:

  • A project leader to coordinate the overall effort
  • A designer to create professional quality layout designs, templates, fonts and graphics
  • A Web editor proficient in using the tools necessary to add or change the site
  • A specialist (often the designer) who can address accessibility issues
  • An information architect to help organize how information and navigation is structured on the site
  • A programmer may be needed if your site includes interactive features, such as processing data entered into on-line forms
  • An IT specialist (server administrator) to provide a robust, stable, and secure hosting environment for your site
  • Other roles usually played by the server administrator include: monitoring site performance to ensure that the site can handle peak traffic, implementing technology tools such as a search engine, security procedures to protect the site, upload utilities for site maintenance, generating server log reports so you can monitor site traffic
  • A writer/editor who understands how to write for Web users
  • A policy specialist who can ensure that the site conforms to appropriate federal guidelines
  • An usability specialist who can help design tests to determine if the site prototype is performing as intended and who can make recommendations on future redesigns
  • A site auditor who ensures that fresh content is fresh, that it is updated as needed, and that links are functional
  • Staff who can respond to users who will send e-mail to the site owners
  • A communications specialist who can help publicize the site to the appropriate audiences; to make sure users know it exists

Special note on creating high quality animations on your website: High quality animations can be extremely effective in helping to convey information about complex scientific phenomena and findings. We encourage web developers and communicators to consider the use of animations to improve the value of their website to their users through the use of animations. The skills involved in creating animations are typically not included in the composition of a Web team. Learn more about the process of creating animations.

2. What Federal laws, policies, and standards apply to NIH Web sites?

The NIH project leader should take responsibility to be informed about the e-gov policies and Federal guidelines that apply to the development of Web sites and should work with the development team to ensure that they are in compliance. Contract employees in particular may not be fully aware of all Federal information technology regulations and may need more detailed direction from the project leader. Outlined below are some of the policies that apply to the development of Federal Web sites. For more information, you may wish to check with the Online Information Branch, OD OCPL.

Some of the policies that apply include:

  • HHS Web Standards. HHS has established an HHS Web Governance Process. For more information on the HHS Web Governance Council, see: http://www.hhs.gov/web/webcouncil/governance/index.html External Web Site Policy. Please visit the HHS Intranet to review the latest set of HHS Web Standards. http://www.hhs.gov/web/policies/index.html External Web Site Policy
  • USA.gov link/logo. If you are creating a site for public use, a graphic logo linking to USA.Gov should be included on footer of your new homepage. See http://www.usa.gov/About/Usagov_Logos.shtml External Web Site Policy for more information.
  • Local Institute policies. Many NIH Institutes have their own internal design guidelines and policies. Check with your IT or Communications Office to learn whether your organization employs such a policy.
  • Use of persistent cookies, see, http://www.hhs.gov/ocio/policy/2000-0009.html External Web Site Policy
  • Domain name requests see http://www.hhs.gov/policies/webpolicies/200501.html External Web Site Policy. In most cases, it is advisable to name your site within the current structure of your parent organization. Currently, HHS approves very few requests for top-level dot gov name requests, which would include any subject word or phrase followed by dot gov, such as "proteins.gov." Such names are only granted if it's clear that the site truly reflects a trans-governmental activity. Also, all official NIH sites need to reside within the GOV domain. There are a few exceptions but again, a waiver needs to be obtained before such a request is granted.
  • *Requests for top-level NIH domain names, such as "parking.nih.gov" or "mitochodria.nih.gov"—Visit this page to submit your request: http://www.net.nih.gov/DNS/ NIH has established a review panel to look at requests for top-level NIH domain names. Requests are evaluated to determine whether the requested name is relevant and appropriate to the resource it describes. We also determine whether the requestor has official sanctioned authority for the topic area being requested. We also review any possible conflicts with other NIH organizations that may have similar or related responsibility in the same subject area. If the proposed site is public facing, the domain name should not be misleading or confusing. In some cases, the review panel may recommend alternative names.
  • Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch—Specifically, "employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual." These standards exist to avoid giving the impression that any Federal agency endorses a particular product or service. This comes into play most often when one considers linking to an external site. If it might appear that such a link serves as an endorsement, it should not be used. If it's clear that the link is there as a service merely to assist users, an external link can be justified. In any case, a disclaimer statement is advisable; follow this link for examples, http://irm.cit.nih.gov/policy/disclsamp.html.
  • NIH Manual Issuance #1183: Publications—The NIH manual stipulates that online publications are subject to the same clearance procedures as printed publications. Fortunately, in most cases, on-line publications use content that was previously cleared for publication in hard-copy. In that case, it does not need to be cleared again. See http://www1.od.nih.gov/oma/manualchapters/management/1183/.
  • Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (PRA)—The PRA requires that all survey requests for information from the public with minor exceptions, must be cleared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and display an OMB control number prior to issue. Contact your organization's Project Clearance Liaison (PCL) for more information on the PRA. For a list of NIH PCLs, see OCPL has in-place an expedited process for Web-related on-line survey clearance. For details, see http://nih-extramural-intranet.od.nih.gov/nih/policies/project_clearance/pcb.htm
  • Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. 552a, OMB Circular No. A-130 ("Management of Federal Information Resources), 61 Fed. Reg. 6428, and the Information Infrastructure Task Force's Principles for Providing and Using Personal Information—Federal agencies must protect an individual's right to privacy when collecting personal information. Posting a privacy policy helps ensure that individuals have received notice and are confident about how their personal information is handled on your site. You can review NIH's privacy policy here: http://www.nih.gov/about/privacy.htm. For more information about the Privacy Act, see http://oma.od.nih.gov/ms/privacy/.
  • Sec. 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended—Information technology and electronic resources made available to employees and to the public by Federal agencies must be accessible to people with disabilities. For more information see http://www.hhs.gov/web/508/ External Web Site Policy and the US Access Board External Web Site Policy.
  • NIH Web Guidance—It is recommended that each site be linked to its parent organization's Web site. The appropriate officials and communications officers responsible for clearing new Web content (access http://www.nih.gov/icd/od/ocpl/resources/wag/weblist.htm for a complete list) should be contacted before the site is launched and linked from parent organization's Web site.
  • Quality of Information Dissemination—For information on the types of on-line information covered by these OMB guidelines, see http://aspe.hhs.gov/infoquality/ External Web Site Policy.

This list of policies should not be considered complete and the NIH project leader should be aware that others may be applicable, depending on the nature of the site. For example, a site aimed at children as an audience needs to comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act ("COPPA"), see http://www.epic.org/privacy/kids/ External Web Site Policy

3. What design standards must be followed?

Logos

NIH has a new logo policy, please refer to: NIH Policy Issuance 1186–Use of NIH Names and Logos

Design Quality, Style, and Content Considerations

Unfortunately, there have been occurrences when NIH launched sites that were poorly designed or used inappropriate content. Some basic design guidelines are as follows: avoid using garish, clashing colors, fast-paced distracting animations, crudely rendered images, misaligned design elements, poor typography, or language not suited to your users.

If a personal photo of an individual or a group is included, the subjects should be set in the workplace and convey a sense of propriety and professionalism. For example, informal images of employees set in vacation settings would not be appropriate. Decisions regarding images or graphics of questionable taste should be resolved by the Communications Director within each Institute.

Avoid using NIH jargon and abbreviations unless your site is clearly designed for an internal audience. Remember that NIH-speak will be meaningless to public users. Content should be written with your users in mind.

While it is relatively simple to create a Web site, it takes considerable talent and experience to create sites that are both intuitive to use and professional in appearance. As with any printed publications, NIH websites, large or small, reflect on our agency; therefore, you are strongly encouraged to use the services of an experienced designer.

In addition, your parent organization may have internal design standards to which you must conform. Common design elements help users identify Web sites and their related pages. One exception to this rule would be special purpose sites designed to reach unique audiences, such as teens or seniors.

Are there standards for clear language?

Beyond design, as with any written communication product, clear, effective writing is important. You are encouraged to use a clear communication language style when writing for the Web. For more information about the Plain Language Initiative, see http://www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/plainlanguage.htm.

Usability Guidelines

Many valuable lessons can be learned from previous usability studies. It is highly recommended that you consult and follow research-based usability guidelines published at http://usability.gov/ External Web Site Policy.

Search

Design your site to be search engine friendly. Most users find information on the Web by using search engines so it's advisable to include relevant subject words rendered as text on your site (rather than using graphics.) A word rendered as a graphic is invisible to a search engine. Use "keyword" and "content" Meta tags and title your site in a meaningful way. Some design options such as the use of Flash animations can also deter spiders from gathering information about your site. It's advisable to discuss these issues with your Web designer.

Register your site with the NIH Google Search Engine

If you create a new public site (or rename an existing site) it's advisable to register your site with main NIH Google search engine team. This will allow them to enter your site among those that are indexed and retrievable to users searching on www.nih.gov. Contact either the Online Information Branch (olib@od.nih.gov) or Ms. Ginny Vinton (CIT.)

You can also create a unique search on your site by making use of a service offered by CIT. For a modest fee, CIT can create a unique search for you using the main NIH Google search appliance. For more information contact Ms. Ginny Vinton at 301-496-7332.

4. Is an email address required on an NIH site?

Most users expect to be able to send email to a point-of-contact from the site homepage. Sometimes users have a follow-up question, sometimes they want to report a problem. Providing some form of contact information is required. A generic email address is recommended; however, you can use a forms-based mail submission form as well. Devise a staffing solution to ensure that someone checks the inbox and provides a timely reply. Besides email, provide a telephone number and physical address as well.

New site owners often overestimate the volume of mail that will be generated by posting an address on the Web. In most cases, the volume is quite manageable. If you do receive more messages than can be handled, contact the NIH Web email team at NIHInfo@NIH.GOV for information on ways to manage mail volume.

5. Where should I host my site?

"Hosting" refers to the computer (server) that acts as the repository for the electronic files that constitute your Web site and the associated hardware and software that enable users to access your files over the Internet. Your hosting server configuration will be tailored to the way you store and serve up pages on your Web site. For example, dynamic pages driven by a content management system will typically require more server space than static HTML files.

To avoid security risks, the NIH WWW Coordinating Committee recommends hosting NIH sites on servers that are owned and operated by NIH. These can reside in your own Office of Information Technology or the Center for Information Technology (CIT). Typically, NIH sites reside within the NIH network, behind the NIH firewall. Contract employees can provide support for you and can be allowed remote access to NIH-owned servers, assuming the appropriate security steps have been taken. A security policy now requires everyone with remote access to sign a User Certification Agreement. For more information, see http://irm.cit.nih.gov/itmra/HHS-IRM-2000-0005.html.

When using contractor, one option would be to host your site on a server that is owned by their company as it is easiest for them to access the files and maintain their server. In some cases, this arrangement has worked successfully; however, there are several issues you'll need to address if you plan on hosting on a non-NIH server. You will want your site will be registered as part of the dot GOV domain. Hosting your site in the commercial domain (with a .com designation) is no longer allowed unless you are granted a waiver from HHS, see, http://www.hhs.gov/policies/webpolicies/200501.html External Web Site Policy.

Hosting outside the NIH firewall can also defeat the ability of search tools to index your site as a government resource (including the NIH search engine). You should also be aware that you will be dependent on contract employees to update or edit the files on your site. It's advisable to make certain that the contractor provides a record of the technical details involved in the creation and operation of your site. For example, color codes, font specifications, and the types of applications used to develop the site are helpful details to have on hand if you need to recreate or modify the site. If the development of your site involves programming, ask that conventional, not proprietary, programming languages be used. Require that any original programming be amply annotated and documented so that others can decipher the code if need be.

If you do choose to have a contractor host your site, there are technical solutions that will allow your site to appear as if it actually resides within the government domain. You should discuss these solutions with your contractor, your organization's Information Systems Security Officer (ISSO), information technology staff, and CIT. Be aware that your Web site will still reside outside the NIH firewall, and ask the contractor to provide details about the security measures they will put in place to protect your site.

Be cautious about uploading draft versions of your Web site to any server that may allow public access. Although doing so will allow you and your team to review the site online, it may also allow others to review it - without realizing that the pages are not in their final form and may not have been approved for general access. Draft pages should be protected by passwords or other means of access control and should be clearly marked as "TEST" or "DRAFT" to avoid confusion.

As a site that's part of the Federal government, you'll want to ensure that your site resides within the government domain, meaning your site will end with the appropriate "nih.gov" designation, and be identified by users as a resource of NIH. You can apply for a new domain name registration through CIT at http://www.net.nih.gov/DNS/.

Occasionally, NIH developers seek to register their sites within other domains such as dot org or dot net. HHS discourages this approach and has a policy governing permission to seek non-dot gov names. See, http://www.hhs.gov/policies/webpolicies/200501.html External Web Site Policy for details. Perhaps, the best case for seeking an exemption to this rule would be in situations where an NIH organization has entered into a formal partnership with non-Federal organizations.

6. Is testing an NIH Web site required?

Although testing your site is not required, it is strongly recommended that you both pre-test and post test your website. Complete testing of your site before it is launched will help to identify problems with performance, design, navigation, and operation, and will afford your team the opportunity to fix problems before inviting your audience to use the site. If you ever expect a large number of concurrent site visitors, load testing may be in order to determine how many concurrent users your server will support.

To perform a complete test of your Web site, you will need to request input from several site visitors who use various types of computers, connections, and system settings. Do not depend on in-house testing to identify all the potential problems with a site; instead, seek site visitors from outside your team to provide objective data and feedback.

Be sure that your testing plan complies with OMB guidelines. Strictly speaking, you will need OMB clearance if you are going to pose the same questions to 10 or more members of the general public. From a usability standpoint, you can successfully test your Web site with nine or fewer site visitors. If you think you need more data, consider devising different task scenarios for different groups of nine. For further guidance, contact the OD Online Information Branch at 301-435-2932.

Be sure that your testing plan complies with OMB guidelines. Strictly speaking, you will need OMB clearance if you are going to pose the same questions to 10 or more members of the general public. From a usability standpoint, you can successfully test your Web site with nine or fewer site visitors. If you think you need more data, consider devising different task scenarios for different groups of nine. For further guidance, contact the Online Information Branch at 301-435-2932.

7. How is an NIH Web site launched?

To "launch" a site is to make it openly available for access by the general public or by your particular audience. Before an NIH site is launched, it should be reviewed by the appropriate officials in your organization. In most cases, this will be the Information Office. If you want to create links to your site on the main NIH site, contact the Online Information Branch in the OD's Office of Communication and Public Liaison.

Simply making the site public will do nothing to attract users to your site. After your site has been reviewed and approved, the Web address of your site should be posted and linked from appropriate pages and should be submitted to various search engines (including the NIH search engine) for indexing. In some instances, we can feature new sites on the NIH home page. Your site may be part of a boarder communications plan to promote a campaign or program. Make sure that the site URL is included on all printed materials. Links from the NIH main Web site and submission to the NIH search engine can be requested through the Online Information Branch.

There are several other options for publicizing your site that will increase the number of users who access it. Contact your Communications Office or the Online Information Branch for guidance.

8. How will the site be maintained?

Our users expect NIH websites to provide current and accurate information. A website should not be launched unless provisions have been made to update the content and ensure that the site is working properly. Websites require ongoing review and editing to keep posted information up-to-date, repair broken links, and respond to users' requests. Maintenance tasks should be taken into consideration when the site is first proposed. Establish a plan and assign responsibilities to those who need to feed new information to the site. New Web managers can join the NIH Web Authors Group (WAG) to learn about issues that might affect your site. Contact the OD Online Information Branch at 301-435-2932 to join the WAG.

9. How can information be collected about an NIH site?

Some insight into the amount and type of traffic on your site can be gleaned from analyzing Web server logs. Typically, IT support staff can recommend software to generate reports, such as Web Trends. Interpreting server data can be difficult due to a lack of standards as well as technical artifacts that can distort the relevance of your results. In most cases, server logs are most useful in identifying long-term trends on the server hosting your information. Server logs are not that useful if you are interested in site performance, usability, or user satisfaction.

Collecting information from users by on-line survey is possible; however, you will need to abide by OMB regulations. One survey instrument that has been used extensively at NIH is the American Customer Satisfaction Survey (ACSI) instrument. To learn more about the ACSI visit: http://www.fcg.gov/measuringperformance.asp External Web Site Policy.

This page last reviewed on December 15, 2014

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