Case Study 3: the Society of Actuaries (SOA)

The SOA website and UKPAW comparison is particularly relevant; both are websites of a national actuarial profession seeking to serve its members. The UKAPW was redesigned in 2010, but the SOA site remains easier to use, with more easily accessible content.

The SOA's home page: highly functional and user-centric

We can learn much from this excellent website. Most of the key information and functionality is on the home page, which conversely contains nothing unimportant. Please can we take a copy?

SOA - a neat website Table: SOA home page
 CommentElement on
1 Site search. Good, but can be hampered by poor page titles; the 2010 ERM Symposium shows up in the site search with the title "SOA - Society of Actuaries". All pages
2 Actuarial directory. Rather unexpectedly takes you offsite, to a site with a different page layout. Getting results back seems challenging e.g. if you don't know the US state of your target actuary. All pages
3 My Account. Pay subscriptions, update your profile, update your CPD etc. Clicking takes you to an external site "offline services". That site has a SOA logo, but no link back to the SOA home page. So you just have to use the back button or type in the address. Poor. All pages
4 CPD. A genuinely useful link and content. All pages
5 Exam registration. Online exam registration. Fellow of the Society of Actuaries (FSA) – Requirements gives detailed insight into the requirements for Fellowship, Associateship or to become a CERA. The UKAPW could learn from this. All pages
6 Event calendar. A straightforward list of events which gives all relevant information (event, dates, location, online registration, CPD credit). All pages
7 Find a section. This "dropdown" points to 19 sections. Coverage is fair, but would benefit from a more specific introduction to each section. The latest news and upcoming events is not always section-specific e.g. the "competency framework" keeps recurring. All pages
8 Key links. This "slideshow" approach to highlighting important content has become ubiquitous. With implementation as good as this, there is some justification. Home page
9 Upcoming events. Again a straightforward approach: what the event is, the date and enough description to know if its for you. Home page
10 Latest news. Good in that a lot of content is supplied in a small space. It would be useful to have some indication of what links were external to the SOA site – this applies throughout to the SOA site. Home page
11 Social links. The social linking is on the bottom of the left hand column for pages other than the home page. The SOA blog is only on the home page. The blog has good content, but few comments. Mixed
12 Contact us. A direct email contact. But curiously the "phone" link reveals an array of possible contacts over a large range of arrears and up to the highest levels of the profession. If you can have an impressive "contact us" page this would be it. Home page
13 Related links. Related to what? Probably "key actuarial external links" is a better description. Home page

The SOA layout

The SOA site follows a hybrid design:

  • Column 1 is the same across the site i.e. core "doing" functionality for actuaries who know what they want. This won't change much over time.
  • Column 2 is the specific site content. This has been carefully crafted, both on the home page (a call to action, events etc) and elsewhere.
  • Column 3 where present is more complex and may contain:
    • "Related links" which are usually related to the main content.
    • News and obvious means of contact (on the home page).

The column 3 and related links conundrum

The SOA site and the UKAPW face the same issue: what do you do when you can't fill the third column with related links? UKAPW almost completely omits functionality, while SOA makes little attempt to show a navigation hierarchy. The issue will only grow over time as screen resolutions increase but, for readability purposes, websites do not want their main content column to be too wide. We somehow need more for the "other" columns.

The UKAPW approach of leaving the third column occasionally blank or showing odd content (e.g. "the European actuary" or "publication of the month") seems artificial. But even the SOA site faces challenges.

My overall approach would be:
  • Use column 1 for functionality a la SOA.
  • Use the top part of column 3 for high level navigation a la QFINANCE's column 1.
  • This column 3 navigation is constant across pages, except that the current area/page is highlighted.
  • The breadcrumb can also do this highlighting.
  • Underneath the column 3 navigation have internal and external "related links".

No easy solutions

To a large extent, this is the approach I've tried to adopt on myFIA, albeit that myFIA has little functionality and hence no real column 1. If there is a substantial amount of content in the main column this can still leave column 3 rather empty (look to the right!)

Table: SOA's use of the third column
AreaSub-area3rd column
Professional interests Professional interests – landing page None
  About professional interests None
  Sections Related links (1)
  Areas of interest None – tiny page.
News and publications News and publications – landing page None
  Newsroom Related links (8)
  Publications None
  Listservs (e-discussion groups) None
Professional development Professional development – landing page None
  Calendar None
  e-courses None
  CPD requirement Related links (7)
  Presentation archives None
  Competency framework Related links (6)
  PD volunteer resource center Related links (3)
  PD opportunities e-newsletter None
  SOA meeting sponsorship None
Careers Careers – landing page None
  Applicants None
  Recruiters (same page as above) None
  Interns None
  Careers at SOA None
Education Education – landing page None
  Exams and requirements None
  General information Related links (5)
  University/college resources Related links (5)
  Education principles None
  Pathway to membership Launches a "sub-site" with a completely different appearance.
Research Research – landing page None
  Research at a glance None
  Research opportunities Related links (1) – very lightweight content.
  Completed experience studies Related links (4)
  Completed research projects Related links (5)
  Software and tools Contacts
  Grants and awards Related links (1) – lightweight content.
About the SOA About the SOA – landing page None
  SOA overview Related links (9)
  What is an actuary? None
  Membership None
  Biographies & photos Related links (4)
  History Related links (15) – the main content is lightweight.
  Market research Related links (6)
  Contact us None
  Volunteer Related links (8)
Leadership Leadership – landing page None
  Current initiatives None
  Strategic management None
  Governance None
  Committees None
  Elections None
  Global programs None
  Joint disciplinary proposal Related links (8)

The SOA navigation: simple and intuitive

The standard horizontal navigation is good. Key features of the SOA navigation include:
  • 8 high level sections, with the currently active section highlighted red.
  • Simple horizontal dropdown, with just one level.
  • Description of navigation links: short but generally meaningful.

There is a huge contrast here with the UKAPW website, reflecting badly on the UK site. The SOA site seems not to have a sitemap or breadcrumb, but the quality of the rest of the site navigation more than compensates.

Table: SOA navigation levels
LevelExamples - and how to identify the level and active page
1 (1) Professional interests (2) News and publications
Excellent, punchy level 1 content. This is a good illustration of how easy it is to write high level content for doorway pages. Each level one page just briefly describes the lower level pages.
2 Publications – again note how the relevant high level section is highlighted. It's not perfect: none of the links under Professional development highlight the main section red.
3+ A multi-level site with considerable depth. As just one example, if the SOA used the breadcrumb concept the path to The Actuarial Practice Forum would be: Home > news and publications > publications > journals > the actuarial practice forum > the actuarial practice forum detail

The SOA content: depth, simplicity and consistency

The content has impressive depth, drawing the reader in. It is well categorised.

The top level pages have quality content, which integrates with the site navigation. Consider, for example, the section professional interests The section introduction states: "Discover information tailored to your specific areas of interest. Join a section for the first time, or reinvigorate your membership by becoming more engaged. Take advantage of the numerous networking opportunities or read the latest news and research."

Slightly longer introductions to the three sub-sections follow: (1) About professional interests (2) Sections and (3) Areas of interest. Helpfully, these are the same three links under the "Professional interests" part of the horizontal navigation. Again, straightforward and effective.

Learning points for UKAPW

[1] Home page

  • Get a simple 3-column design
  • Put core functionality in the first column (say) and consider extending to all pages
  • Give the message conveyed by the slideshow / tabs more substance
  • Ditch the "design for design's sake"
  • In particular, reduce the number of images, giving simple text links more weight
  • Make the links more readable, shortening their text
  • Apply these last two ideas to eShop, events and publication of the month
  • Consider dropping the external news

[2] Layout

  • Make the home page layout simpler
  • Make the layout for all pages consistent
  • Use the third column clearly and consistently

[3] Content

  • Rewrite the content for most landing pages to give stronger introductions
  • If the purpose of the third column is to show "related links" make them related – this can be hard work for the reader.
  • Alternatively put something else there in addition, but do this consistently
  • Make (e.g.) papers and presentations from past conferences easily available online

[4] Navigation

  • Within the navigation, make the links more readable, shortening their text
  • Stop the horizontal menu being translucent
  • Make the horizontal navigation a simple dropdown or extend the number of links
  • In the latter case, consider making the horizontal navigation and sitemap consistent
  • Consider also making the site's folder structure simpler

[5] Sitemap

Uniquely among the case study sites, the SOA site has no sitemap. Indeed it also has no breadcrumb and the sub-navigation is limited. Although I would not recommend this approach, the other methods of navigation (including the site search) are so strong that these omissions have little practical significance.