What NASA Can Teach You About Web Design

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.

Image of the Day

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:

NASA Kid Section

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.

NASA on Twitter

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.

In Summary

We’ve covered a lot of ground space today. What makes NASA’s online presence so great? Here’s a breakdown of key points:

  1. They realize the average visitor is not a rocket scientist and plan accordingly.
  2. They have an active community involvement across social media.
  3. They know how to make their work relevant to the average person.
  4. 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.

Posted Monday, December 21st, 2009 · Back to Top

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35 Comments 4 Mentions

  1. Johnny Author Editor

    Interesting article, a bit different from the usual old thing.
    There are a bunch of good tips riddled in there, so good job :)

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  2. Design Informer Author Editor

    Excellent points you bring up Zach. great job on the analysis of the NASA website.

    I think ever since Obama became President, the use of social media in government has been increasing. I think his campaign set the precedence for that.

    I’m definitely looking forward to more articles like this one in the future.

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  3. Juan Author Editor

    Very good article!

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  4. Tessa Author Editor

    Really interesting perspective, I like the focus on content writing. The balence between “dumbing down” and burying your audience in techno-babble is an important one that a lot of sites have trouble achieving. Great post!

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  5. Web Design by 314media.com St. Louis Author Editor

    It’s always import to target your audience when designing… Great tips none the less though.

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  6. Crystal Author Editor

    I’ve been on NASA’s website before and I must agree that it is engaging. I think it’s incredibly smart of them to create additional content, that is educational, entertaining, and engaging, as well as the need-to-know information. A perfect example of how a website should be executed!

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  7. Marcell Purham Author Editor

    Great Post! Yes whenever Nasa explain something it is always broken down so that the average understands what they’re saying. This article was very good. Great job

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  8. Chris Thurman Author Editor

    I love to look at other industries and apply strategies and techniques to my own (web design). I believe that is a key ingredient in innovation. Great post!

    One other key to learn from NASA: how to have an effective site LAUNCH (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

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  9. Michael Szczepanski Author Editor

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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  10. kangtanto Author Editor

    I’ve been to NASA and never thought that it has any relation to web design…. great article dude….

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  11. SMiGL Author Editor

    Intresting post. Thanks

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  12. Giorgio Sironi Author Editor

    The first image is my desktop background! Good post.

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  13. Alex Author Editor

    Very informative.

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  14. kristi Author Editor

    I thought nasa stood for National American Space Agency?

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  15. Richie Author Editor

    Very interesting post….. webdesign has gone universal and into space now ….

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  16. Zach Dunn Author Editor

    As Michael correctly pointed out, the first A in NASA does stand for aeronautics (not just air). I’ve updated the post accordingly. Sorry for any confusion!

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  17. Djdesignerlab Author Editor

    I visit Nasa website every week. The information in this article is very meaning full. Thanks…

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  18. Joe Author Editor

    Web design and web content are two entirely different things. This article’s title is about web design, but the body seems to be about content. NASA has problems with both. Flash must die, and the sooner the better, and be replaced with cross-platform standards like QuickTime. Using Flash automatically denies iPhone users access to content. Sitting here on my MacBook Pro using the latest version of Safari, I can’t view all the video content at

    http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html#

    due to proprietary plugins that are required. This is definitely NOT good web design.

    Now let’s talk about content. There is a difference between making content understandable and dumbing it down to the point of nonsense. Having taught undergraduate astronomy and physics for nearly 18 years, I have evidence that NASA is guilty of the latter. Nonsense words like “gravity”, “microgravity”, and “escape velocity” are used by NASA with certain assumptions about what the consumer already knows, but those assumptions are wrong most of the time. For instance, are you aware that when most (VAST majority) of students hear the word “gravity”, they think of a material substance rather than a natural physical interaction or attractive behavior? It’s true. This in turn leads to such nonsense as thinking that Earth “has gravity” but Moon doesn’t. These misconceptions are exceptionally difficult to dispel in the classroom. BTW, I’ve presented on this very issue at both state level and national AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) conferences among my academic peers.

    Finally, if a website doesn’t validate (this page doesn’t) against the W3C standards, I can’t take anything its “designer” says seriously.

    I’m a proud NASA supporter and I make heavy use of NASA websites both personally and professionally, but there are problems with websites that this article glosses over or completely ignores.

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  19. Joe Author Editor

    BTW, the comments about Flash were not necessarily directed at NASA because I’ve not encountered Flash content on a NASA site yet. Sorry for the unintended implication!

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  20. reivax Author Editor

    Are some of you people using Firefox 3.5 ?
    Nasa website won’t display any video on it, but display :
    “NASA TV requires Windows Media, Real Player or Quicktime plug-ins to play in your preferred player.”

    Not only installing WM plugin won’t solve the issue (for me…), but that’s using the 3 worse plugins (proprietary formats) available.

    So, sorry, that is not what I call great web site design.

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  21. Phillip Hurst Author Editor

    Great website, especially considering an undoubtedly limited operating budget and seemingly endless content to mine. As a result, I imagine NASA.gov performs 10+ times as well as NASA TV in terms of engaging audience. Considering the latest reports says avg U.S. person still spends many more hours watching TV than using the web, would love to see their channel show the same quality.

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  22. Benjamin Author Editor

    @reivax I’m using Firefox 3.5 and have never had any difficulty accessing video or NASA TV on their website (and I visit NASA.gov multiple times a week for such content). I can’t imagine what problem it is you and other are having.

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  23. Brian Author Editor

    @Joe you obviously have some sort of grudge against flash (COUGH *apple fan boy*). I am for w3c standards but quick time? really?

    The content of a website is part of web design anything on the web page is considered a design aspect.

    A High School web design teacher said to me that one of the main thing students need to learn for web design is how to properly format content. She told me that most of her students had pages that were wall’s of text.

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  24. michael soriano Author Editor

    good post. I did visit nasa’s site and you’re right on the dot.

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  25. Osvaldo M. Author Editor

    Totally agree with this article… I’m not much into space nor science but a while ago i needed footage from space for a video that i was making as part of a uni project. Sfter useless hours of google searchs and torrent downloads i decided to check out the NASA website and i found myself lost for a few hours in the website just clicking and browsing around. I found everything that i needed and a bunch of other interesting stuff for my project, definitely one interesting and well-designed website…

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  26. Osvaldo M. Author Editor

    @Joe regarding: “Finally, if a website doesn’t validate (this page doesn’t) against the W3C standards, I can’t take anything its “designer” says seriously”.
    Just a thought i am having: I believe quite a good amount of the awarded websites (usually in advertising, but still in the majority of the online media) are not compliance with W3C standards, and many of them are done running in Flash and made by acclaimed designers… they rely on a single factor: “user experience”. I, as well as NASA, would happily spare users with IE6 or below and low internet connections in order to provide a site which is provides more of an experience than just “read on” content in order to keep a usual flock of returning users, instead of having a bunch of one time visitors… . To provide a few evidence of my ramblings: Go to http://www.webbyawards.com/, check out the websites and run them against w3c, i randomly tried 7 of the sites, all came out with errors… and i wouldn’t dare to say i wouldn’t take any of the designers in there seriously… I acknowledge W3C is a great resource for mainstream and global websites, but as professional experience have dictated me: it means nothing when you have yourself a target audience…

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  27. Php Web Development India Author Editor

    What a great Information about Nasa and related. We have really enjoyed the post.

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  29. php web development from india Author Editor

    There is a difference between making content understandable and dumbing it down to the point of nonsense. Having taught undergraduate astronomy and physics for nearly 18 years, I have evidence that NASA is guilty of the latter. Nonsense words like “gravity”, “microgravity”, and “escape velocity” are used by NASA with certain assumptions about what the consumer already knows, but those assumptions are wrong most of the time.

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  30. Estuardo Meléndez Author Editor

    WOW:::::::::MY EGG

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  31. Dan at St. Louis SEO Zone Author Editor

    Excellent article…your points are well taken…It’s obvious Nasa has no problem with design but they had to articulate their content well in order to satisfy different types in the audience.

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  32. درب اتوماتیک Author Editor

    very good thanks admin

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