Columbia Health: Go Ask Alice!

Transforming a 30-Year Legacy: A User Experience Overhaul

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The Go Ask Alice! (GAA!) website had common issues to address: an outdated design gave its young audience an unfavorable impression, and an older codebase made digital accessibility difficult to attain while slowing their authors down. While the information quality was high and reliable, these issues contributed to a potential decrease in visitor’s trust. Oomph teamed up with the amazing team at GAA! to transform and redesign the visitor experience, reaffirm the brand as a non-judgmental and empathetic presence, and enhance the team's content creation efficiency.

Go Ask Alice! (GAA!) is a judgment-free, anonymous question-and-answer site. It is part of Alice! Health Promotion, a department of Columbia Health. Their content has always been reliable, accurate, and thoroughly researched by professionals — humans, not Artificial intelligence (AI)!  While organic search brings many different kinds of audiences across the globe to their answers, their primary audience is the college students of Columbia University. These digital natives need the content to speak their language and to look modern and relevant. Oomph leaned into the college-aged persona to create a user interface that was fun, unique, and approachable while acknowledging and respecting the gravity of the questions students ask. 

The Brief

Empathize with both Visitors and Authors

We began by working to understand and empathize with their audience — which was easy. How many of us have gotten lost searching for answers to questions we might not ask our own close friends? Questions like, “Can I get Hepatitis A from eating raw seafood?”, “Do I have OCD?” or even “Why did my father abandon me?” Analytics supported how these types of questions were prevalent. They also showed that while many visitors found GAA! through search, those visitors found their answer and quickly left. While in some ways, this was positive — someone had a question and found a satisfactory answer — visitors missed lots of other answers to questions they might have.

For the Go Ask Alice! author team, technical issues often arose that were rooted in an overly complex content architecture and workflows that required lengthy workarounds. A complicated review and approval process and ineffective spam filters made combing through user submissions time-consuming. The longer it takes the team to create new answers, the less students will want to send GAA! their questions.

Our shared goals were to:

  • Modernize the design and attract more web-savvy students to read answers to questions they didn’t know they should ask.
  • Reinforce trust by being open about the process and the real human professionals behind the answers.
  • Improve search, filtering, and findability by leading with topics first and guiding visitors to the types of questions that interest them most.
  • Mitigate and simplify complex authoring processes to empower the small editorial team to answer more questions, support responses with engaging media, and reduce staff frustration.

The Approach

Modernization & Trust-building 

Most Gen-Z students and younger generations won’t trust a site that isn’t designed well for a mobile screen. Our design process emphasized the small screen experience, keeping filters, sharing, citations, and recirculation in logical places. The Columbia Health brand is also a powerful lever for establishing trust with a young audience, but we were careful not to let it overpower GAA!’s own authentic brand.

Human responses feel human

With the rise of AI and Google’s AI-generated search results, our design reinforced the humanity and empathy of GAA! by establishing a clear “Dear Alice” with a unique handwritten font and response from the author. When dealing with potentially sensitive and health-threatening answers, an authentic human voice is essential, and one that puts answers into context — is this thing I am asking about “normal”? What are the additional considerations I should know about? And so on. AI might give you one answer, but it won’t contain the context and nuance these anonymous human-generated questions require.

Unique Colors & Illustrations

Blue is strongly associated with Columbia Health and prevented the previous site from standing independently. Our design reduced focus on blue and shifted the site’s primary colors to maroon and yellow. Several other colors create wayfinding paths associated with answer topics. Scrolling the All Topics category page becomes a delightfully random color experience.

All color combinations adhere to WCAG 2.2 guidelines for Level AA, increasing the accessibility of this color-rich site for all visitors. 

A new set of illustrations curates a sense of inclusivity better than stock photos could. A wide variety of humans were chosen to represent the diversity of student populations. Little details, like the randomized person in the site’s footer, add a sense of surprise and delight to the entire browsing experience.

Supporting Trust with New Features

Enhancement ideas started to surface during Discovery and continued throughout the process from both teams. Some of our favorites include:

  1. The editor’s name, the answer’s published date, and its revision date were moved from the bottom of an answer and brought to the top. This information helps establish credibility quickly before reading an entire answer
  2. A feedback feature was added to individual answers, giving the GAA! team real-time data about the responses but also giving new visitors a greater sense of social proof
  3. A “Cite this Response” feature makes cutting and pasting an MLA (Modern Language Association) General Format- or Chicago-style academic citation into research papers easy. Since answers are so well-researched, these citations propagate GAA! further into academic culture

Increased User Engagement & Accessibility

Accessibility & Safety with a Quick Exit Button

Go Ask Alice! has many sensitive questions: questions about sexual abuse, suicide, drug use, and topics generally that you may not want someone else to see on your phone. We introduced a Quick Exit feature on each page of the site. When visitors click the button, a new tab is quickly opened, and the site’s browsing history is removed from their device. While this is not a well-known action in the general population, many in unsafe situations know how they work and what “Exit Site” means. 

Oomph has written an in-depth article about the quick exit button and has released a Quick Exit Drupal Module to help other teams implement this feature. 

Encouraging Question Browsing over Asking New Questions

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the major workflows we redesigned was asking a question in the first place. The GAA! team has compiled thousands of great answers over the years and frequently updates old answers with new content to keep them current with changes in medical approaches. The small but mighty team didn’t want to answer the same questions over and over again by referring new askers to pre-published answers. 

Our solution emphasized search and intentionally made access to the Question form difficult. Visitors are encouraged to search for answers to previously posted questions first. Quite often, they will discover an answer to their questions (and maybe some helpful answers to questions they did not expect). Only if they have searched first will they encounter the “Can’t find your question” call to action, which leads them through the steps of asking a new question. 

The Results

The new site feels like a new beginning for the GAA! team. While the site has only recently launched, we look forward to seeing how it impacts key metrics like time on site and return visits. In the meantime, we’re also excited to see how the newly revamped admin experience helps the GAA! content team serve their audience even better than before. 

When faced with a sensitive question about mental, nutritional, emotional, or sexual health, college students can continue to Go Ask Alice!