Best designed "information" sites?
July 22, 2004 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Best designed "information" sites? I've done a lot of web sites for bands / independent films / small businesses. I've now been asked to create a site for a large government organization and am scouring the web for design inspiration. What are your favorite sites (not necessarily gov't) that are clean/modern and well organized and/or offer features you think are important to a site that has a heft of wide-ranging information?
posted by dobbs to Computers & Internet (16 answers total)
Don't call it GovWorks and burn through your venture capital.

Although busy, the MO state website isn't bad. The Show Me headers make sense when looking for something.

Gathering Ground is a local place and I was pretty impressed at how the design was for that. Most local owned business sites are crap.
posted by pieoverdone at 10:20 AM on July 22, 2004

The old before it got slurped into some horrible designed-for-designers DHTML nightmare site. That site was fantastic, but now a lot of the content and functionality has been removed, presumably because one day it will be used on the nightmare site.
posted by majick at 10:24 AM on July 22, 2004

international herald tribune
posted by juv3nal at 10:59 AM on July 22, 2004

OT: I kind of like the design of the Transit Info site, but why is their "skip navigation" link at the freaking bottom of the navigation? Haven't you already skipped it?
posted by kirkaracha at 11:28 AM on July 22, 2004

VideoHelp is a bit on the gangly side, but I find it very usable, and it does organize one hairy boatload of information. I think one of the things they did right was pick a user-centric scheme for organizing the content. The major sections are things like:

DVD Backup

...which might not seem like a set of things that go together, from a pure taxonomist's POV. But they are useful for organizing the content, which is mostly guides about doing conversions of video, largely DVD backups, using various tools. I guess the lesson is to not worry too much about a perfectly symmetric taxonomy, but try to cut to the chase and address the needs people came to the site with, ASAP.

They also do a nice job with things like:

"Search: I want to convert [format1] to [format2]"

Where the two bracketed things are pulldown menus. You select what you're starting with and what you want to wind up with, and the search engine returns relevant guides and tools. Again: totally user-friendly. Get the people what they need fast.

They also do a nice job of integrating forums and ratings wherever it might be helpful. They seem to know what their content *is* on a formal level: comments, ratings, lists, and articles. The UI makes advantageous use of all these.
posted by scarabic at 11:44 AM on July 22, 2004

For that style of site, all my favorites can be found here (Very Clean) and here (Portals).
posted by dhoyt at 11:44 AM on July 22, 2004

OT: Oh man, the old site was WAY better than the current site. I don't even live in the bay area but always loved transitinfo! Thanks for the link.
posted by yourpalbill at 11:53 AM on July 22, 2004

I have long found the Internet Movie Database to have one of the best site designs around. It has gobs of information, all easy to find. Both browsing and searching work well. The front page has gotten a little kitschy but overall the site functions quite well.
posted by caddis at 12:33 PM on July 22, 2004

No specific site in mind, but a pet peeve of mine is an unhelpful FAQ. I'll go to a site with what I'm thinking must be a fairly common question, so I go straight for the FAQ, and they'll have maybe 5 questions on there, none of which has anything to do with what I need to know. Obviously, the number of questions that are actually "frequently asked" can vary widely with the organization, but I think 30-50 questions is not at all unreasonable for a FAQ, as long as they're arranged by broad categories (and not one long unorganized list of 50 questions).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:02 PM on July 22, 2004

I'm bias because I worked on it but WorkSite is pretty good. It's all HTML 4.01 / CSS layout, with DHTML that degrades gracefully. I like that the left-hand menus are onclick based rather than onmouseover, which is easier for keyboard navigation and those who use screen magnifiers. Each page can have related links. Links to PDFs are given little pdf icons with size info if available. The search engine keeps your search terms, and there's some search hints by listing popular search terms. I don't like the contact details being pushed off to the side - that seems to be important , or the slowness of the site. The flash banner only appears if you have Flash installed - it won't ask you to install it if you don't have it.
posted by holloway at 2:59 PM on July 22, 2004

The US Census site is beyond awesome in the amount of information it has. I'm also a big fan of the CDC site.

Both of them are highly useable and allow you to get access to tons of information below the surface.
posted by jasper411 at 3:16 PM on July 22, 2004

If we are going to get into pet peeves, mine is the need for a site map. When an utterly incomprehensible site has one I am glad. However, if your site needs one then you didn't design it properly. This is sort of like designing your software (and isn't a site just a form thereof) so that the casual user need never crack the user manual. The site itself should naturally lead users (especially first time users) quickly to the information they desire. It should also, on the front page, inform the user of all the possible information to be had. If the site is particularly rich with information, then the front page needs to present catagories of the information available in such a fashion that almost any user can grasp the extent of the information available and hone in on it quickly. This all sounds so simple, yet the execution always seems to be much more difficult.

On cursory inspection, holloway's WorkSite looks very good.
posted by caddis at 3:37 PM on July 22, 2004

dobbs, i don't have any links for you. i will advise you that if the site you build doesn't have a powerful and useful search feature you have failed. most users hit the search box first to look for things, and hit the navigation second. so if your search is week it will be less useful to the users. this is especially true if the point of the website is to have scads of information available. the more information, the less useful the nav, the more necessary the search.

this is why google is excellent for searching the internet, but a certain "Hierarchical Officious Oracle" is all but useless for the same thing.
posted by raaka at 4:50 PM on July 22, 2004

international herald tribune

I really hate the IHT's "Thou Shalt Not Scroll" article layout. Drives me absolutely up the wall.
posted by gimonca at 7:00 PM on July 22, 2004

most users hit the search box first

True, sort of. They'd rather hit a search field first, and save themselves the bother of figuring out a navigation scheme or data taxonomy. But it depends greatly on what kind of audience and site you're talking about. For example, I doubt that 80% of the people who land on hit the search engine. That's because it's a fresh content portal, and people go there not knowing what they want. They want to see whatever's on the homepage, basically., by contrast, will get a lot of search queries, as people hunt for deals on the thing they already know they want.

Not to understate search. Search is crucial. But it's not the end-all for all users all the time. If your site is mostly made up of insiders who need to use the site for work, for example, then chances are they'll eventually learn to penetrate the system without blindly querying the search engine every single time. Know your audience. It's important.
posted by scarabic at 7:07 PM on July 22, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, all! Some good (helpful) stuff here.
posted by dobbs at 11:10 AM on July 23, 2004

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