Taking Advantage of Web Functionalities in a Quality Report

The vast majority of health care quality reports are available on the internet. This section discusses how you can use web functionalities to improve your displays of quality scores and help readers get to the data they want quickly and easily.

Layer Data Displays

The term “layering” refers to the practice of providing the users of your report with multiple layers of information so that they can choose for themselves whether to focus on high-level information—such as summary or composite scores—or “drill down” to more specific information in the lower layers. It is possible to layer information in printed reports, but the web allows for a cleaner and more direct presentation of layers and enables users to drill down into exactly and only the details they want to see.

Advantages of Layering

There are multiple advantages to layering information in a quality report:

  • It reduces the potential for information overload.
  • You can include more information in a single website.
  • It allows users to customize the report for themselves. For example, if they want a particular detail, they can get it. If they don’t, they don’t have to look at it.
  • Since the layers are always there, users can come back to a report at a later point if they decide they need the detail after all.

When Is Layering Appropriate?

Consider layering when you have more than seven or eight measures and/or have data on more than seven or eight health care organizations. Why seven or eight? Classic research in cognitive psychology indicates that people can keep seven, plus or minus two, ideas in their short-term memory at one time.[1] So when you have data on more than seven or eight ideas, you are really at the limit of what the average person can handle.

How To Do Layering

Layering quality information takes thought and care. You have to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and figure out the best way to help them navigate through the information you want to provide. You also have to make it as intuitive and easy as possible.

Create Pathways for Users

As more valid and reliable quality data become available, report sponsors face a challenge: How to provide as much information as possible on a single website without overwhelming users. Users typically want a lot of information to be available, but don’t want to look at a lot of information all at once. Also, different users will want to be able to do different things.

For example, suppose you have a site with several different quality measures for local hospitals. Users may want to:

  • Look at some or all of the information for only the hospital they typically use, all by itself.
  • Compare a few local facilities across one measure.
  • Compare a few local facilities across all measures.
  • Compare all facilities across one, a few, or all of the information in the report.

This kind of customization is possible with a web-based report. Specifically, you can make it possible for users to:

Make It Easy For Users To Find Data on Other Topics

Helping people get to one place in your website is not enough. If your site is really interesting and relevant, users will want to check out other places as well. So you need to make it very easy and intuitive for them to get to another spot, even if they are not web-savvy.

In particular, you do not want users to feel that they have to go back to the very beginning every time they need to find something new. The reality is that they may sometimes have to do that, but it should be avoided where possible. Another reason this is important is that many users will “land” on a page deep within your website from another site’s link or a search engine. To keep them on your site, you have to make it easy for them to orient themselves and explore other topics.

When you design your navigational scheme, consider offering alternative ways for users to move through your site, including:

Navigation Links

One important strategy is to create a set of navigation links that make it easy for users to move to different sections of your site no matter where they are at the moment. In many ways, these links reflect the information hierarchy and structure of your site, i.e., the “skeleton” you are fleshing out with your data. The development of this architecture should be an early task rather than something done at the last minute.

Placement of Navigation Links

Navigation links may run horizontally across the top of your web page and/or vertically down the side. If your site is complicated, you could use both. For example, the links at the top could show up consistently on every page while the links on the side(s) could change depending on the section of the site.

  • Horizontal links. One problem with horizontal links is that they are constrained by the width of the page. Depending on the number of links and their labels, you may find that the links do not fit horizontally across the top.
  • Vertical links. Vertical links are typically placed on the left side of web pages, so users expect to look for them there. 

Labeling of Navigation Links

The labels for navigation links should be simple and brief, typically one or two words. If you are testing your site, you can ask about the navigation link labels to make sure your audience understands them.

Links From One Section to Another

A second strategy is to suggest other pages in the site that might provide relevant additional information to someone reading a given page. For example, if you are providing information on physician performance in managing patients with diabetes, you might want to link to another part of your website that provides technical details on the measures and additional information on what diabetes is and how to manage it. Some links can be to external sites, but it is critical to monitor these links because they can disappear or move without warning.

Another way to help the user would be to add links to other perspectives on the information; for example, you could say:

  • “Compare a different set of providers.”
  • “Compare a different set of measures.”
  • “Compare measures in a different category.”

Breadcrumb Trails

A breadcrumb trail is a small set of links at the top of a web page that shows the location of the page in the context of the site’s structure. This trail helps users orient themselves within the site and can make it easier for them to find their way back to a more general page.

For example, here’s the breadcrumb trail for this page of Talking Quality:

Home>Talking Quality>Translate Data Into Information>Using Web Functionalities


[1] Miller GA. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review 1956, 63: 81-97. Available at http://www.musanim.com/miller1956/

Also in "Translate Data Into Information"

Page last reviewed May 2019
Page originally created February 2015
Internet Citation: Taking Advantage of Web Functionalities in a Quality Report. Content last reviewed May 2019. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. https://www.ahrq.gov/talkingquality/translate/web/index.html
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