What NASA Can Teach You About Web Design
Today we’re going to talk about space.
What does space have to do with becoming a better web designer? Actually, the real connection here is the folks who look at space. The people of NASA are brilliant when it comes to publishing content to the internet.
Take a cue from the best and brightest and you could have compelling and effective websites without a degree in astrophysics.
A Brief History of Space
Space has been around for a fairly long time, and is actually quite large. In 1958, the United States established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a way to kickstart space exploration. These are the folks responsible for determining what objects and/or individuals to launch in orbit next. They also have quite a few million-dollar toys floating around, with even more on the way.
The mission statement found on the official website sums up the agency’s goals nicely:
…thousands of people have been working around the world — and off of it — for 50 years, trying to answer some basic questions. What’s out there in space? How do we get there? What will we find? What can we learn there, or learn just by trying to get there, that will make life better here on Earth?
What’s so great about NASA’s internet?
NASA may have fascinating work, but what makes them such a model for effective web design? Incidentally, NASA has a lot to offer to the web design community besides space-faring geniuses. Coding and design aside, their web presence is a prime example of effective communication.
As web designers, it’s sometimes hard to picture what happens after a website gets published. Most websites are made to spread information to a designated audience (e.g. homeowners). Design helps, but delivery and technique are just as important. This is the part where NASA shines, and what this article highlights.
Make the Hard Stuff Interesting
This is where a lot of people get mixed up. There is a difference between “dumbing down” a subject and making it accessible. Writing in words that are easy to understand is not a bad thing — especially if the goal is effective communication.
Where the rest of us have little idea about the mysteries of space, NASA always manages to bring us up to speed. What happened? Why does it matter? This is advanced journalism, because the topics are (quite literally) rocket science. They can’t afford not to simplify the topics — very few people would understand otherwise.
Even though the processes are so advanced, you don’t need a professional background in science to appreciate the site’s content. To the average person, NASA is a thrilling portal to amazing photographs of places they wouldn’t see otherwise. NASA has learned to harness that excitement by publishing daily content of space imagery and updates.
Content for Specific Audiences
NASA has the benefit of having work that results in genuinely fascinating news. Lakes discovered on a moon of Saturn? Pictures from the world’s most powerful telescopes? That’s hard to match.
But even with such unique content, how do you take this information and then present it effectively? The entire site is a landing pad for people of all backgrounds. All the way from kindergarten classes looking for moon facts, to astronomers searching for black hole physics. This seems like it would be a hard spread.
Just for Kids
Segmenting explanations and content by demographics is best illustrated by the strategies used in the student section. Let’s take the Kindergarten thru fourth grade page for example:
Friendlier terms like “Play and Learn” and “Discover cool stuff” replace the copy for older audiences. Students in higher age groups are met with more mature topics like “research tools” and “current opportunities.” An invitation to “play fun games” with cartoon imagery just wouldn’t have the same effect with older groups.
This separation and re-presentation of content isn’t limited to just student pages and grade level. The same trends can be seen under the sections dedicated to educators, media, and policymakers.
Interact with the Audience
They know how to engage with today’s audience. In a recent contest, voters were asked to choose the name of a new space station module. As fans of Stephen Colbert might remember, this was highly publicized. Social media played a large role in getting involvement going. NASA does a great job of reminding the community that they don’t take themselves as seriously as you’d think.
Since it is also an agency of the government, NASA is subject to a high level of transparency in its ongoing operations. As recent articles have pointed out, being transparent works wonders for credibility. They maintain over two dozen twitter accounts, including those belonging to individual astronauts.
They keep in touch with modern events and trends. In between making calculations for satellite launches, they still have time to write up compelling posts about the 2012 doomsday theories brought on by a movie.
Interested in seeing all the ways NASA interacts with its audience? Take a look at the sprawling “Connect with Us” page.
We’ve covered a lot of
ground space today. What makes NASA’s online presence so great? Here’s a breakdown of key points:
- They realize the average visitor is not a rocket scientist and plan accordingly.
- They have an active community involvement across social media.
- They know how to make their work relevant to the average person.
- They have a high level of transparency about operations.
Please remember that this article is not saying that NASA is the only site to successfully use these techniques, nor were they the first. They are just a good example of these tactics in practice. Do you have any other sites that you’ve learned a lot from unintentionally? See anything in NASA’s setup that you think could be done differently? Share your thoughts in the comments below.