Information architecture sits at the core of great web design and, sadly, is often overlooked on small and medium sized websites. What follows is a brief overview of what IA is and some tips on how to apply it’s core principals into your existing work-flow so you end up with better organized, more user-friendly websites.
Wikipedia describes Information Architecture as “a structural design of shared environments, methods of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, and online communities, and ways of bringing the principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape”. To put it more simply, IA is about organizing a website in a way that will immediately make sense to your visitors. I often tell my clients that my primary goal is to create a website where those who visit it feel ‘in control’ of the experience. This means creating an organizational structure that will prevent visitors from feeling lost or confused and instead provide them with an environment in which they can locate the specific information they are looking for quickly and easily.
I’ve heard a lot of ‘experts’ (especially eCommerce consultants) talk about how important it is to ‘reduce clicks’. This concept, at first glance, seems to make a lot of sense – why clutter the browsing experience with unnecessary behavior? The problem comes when they start creating rules like ‘the customer should be able to land on a product detail page within three clicks’. Why three? Why not four or two? How long does it take to click your mouse? A fraction of a second? So the difference between 3 clicks and 4 clicks in terms of time and effort is essentially nil. To me, a more important goal is to create a browsing experience filled with confident clicks.
I think it’s safe to say that the average internet user scans over WAY more information than they actually read. I know it’s certainly true of me. Why? Because there’s simply TOO much information out there. More often then not I’m in search of something specific – whether it be a snippet of code, a product I want or just a random factoid on Wikipedia. Google has expedited this process for the most part but, more often than not, they just drop off visitors at your website – it’s up to you to create an environment in which they can quickly and easily find the exact piece of information they’re looking for.
When I’m on the hunt for something specific I don’t care HOW many clicks it takes as long as each click I make is confident.
Taking the time necessary to think about and craft an intuitive site architecture will make visitors to your website feel comfortable which will probably lead to them coming back. There’s really only two questions you need to ask your client to get started.
Have you ever met someone who still uses Yahoo? Isn’t it weird? Or when you watch TV and see ads for ‘Bing’. Whenever they come on I always think, ‘the people watching this realize Google still exists, right?’
But Yahoo still makes oodles of money from it’s oodles of visitors. And, strangely enough, Bing’s share of the search market is growing steadily. Why is that? Well, it’s because Bing isn’t after the people who are satisfied with Google. They’re after the people who get overwhelmed when searching for stuff online. It’s why Microsoft has been calling Bing their ‘decision engine’. They’re tailoring the experience for the people who don’t like Google and are looking for a helping hand with common, specific search tasks like researching how to find the cheapest flight possible or the best price on pleated khakis.
The same goes for Yahoo. Just take a look at their front page. It’s PACKED with way more information than Google’s spartan homepage. It’s because Yahoo’s regular visitors like having all that information right there. A quick visual scan of their front page yields the day’s top news stories, trending topics and all of the Yahoo-specific services – it’s like the front page of a newspaper. I’m a fan of a Google’s minimalist approach but, my dad? He’s a Yahoo guy.
Who is your client trying to reach with their website? It’s impossible for it to appeal to everyone but who does it HAVE to appeal to? It’s rare that a site will only have one type of audience, there’s probably going to be four or five different ones you’ll have to take into account. Your job is to figure out what these different audiences are and which one of them is the most important to reach.
For the South Shore Community Church website there were five audiences respondcreate was tasked with reaching (ranked by importance):
Why would SSCC not have their local regular attenders as their first priority? Isn’t that a bad decision that may alienate the people who visit the site most? Not in the least. The regular attender is more apt to be patient while using the website because they are already invested in the church community. Having to make a few more clicks to find exactly what they’re looking for won’t put them off as long as the clicks they make are confident.
However, if a user who has no affiliation with the church becomes overwhelmed or confused about where they should go to find the information they’re after they might leave, never to return. That’s why the first button to the right of ‘HOME’ in the top navigation bar is ‘VISITORS’ which takes you to a page that has a clean, welcoming overview of everything the site has to offer. It editorializes the browsing experience specifically for the target audience.
Knowing who your audience is (and what they’re interested in) will expedite the decision making process when crafting your navigation and helps transform this often-times arbitrary process into an intentional one.
Once you have put together your site architecture ask yourself, ‘is this going to be effective in reaching our target audience?’ If you, or anyone you show it to, says ‘no’ you know you have to go back to the drawing board. Just be sure that whoever you get feedback from knows exactly what you’d like them to evaluate. As with anything related to design, having critiques from outside sources is enormously helpful but knowing someone’s personal preference does you no good. In the case of the South Shore site I asked a whole bunch of people, ‘if you knew nothing about the church and was visiting the site for the first time, what would you be looking for’? The answers I got back from pointed, specific questions like this one were tremendously useful in helping me nail down the final navigation structure.
OK, so you now have some tips on organizing your site’s structure and navigation based on audience but what about the pages themselves? How many should I have? How much information should I have on each page?
Great question, me.
During the planning stage of any site I also ask my clients, ‘What do you want the site to do?’. I also add in a caveat: ‘Try not to tell me about anything specific you’ve seen on another website (we’ll talk about that later), just tell me things you want this website to consistently accomplish for you as if it was an employee in your business or organization.’
Here’s a couple of the answers I got back from the staff of South Shore Community Church to that question:
After you’ve collected all of these functionality ‘features’ that the site needs to ‘do’ open up a spreadsheet application like Excel or Numbers and then enter them one-by-one into their own row. Now, enter each audience into the columns of the spreadsheet. Here’s the form I put together for SSCC.
When you have your spreadsheet completed sit down with your client and ask them how important each of these functionality features is to each audience. I have my clients rate each feature with between zero and three checkmarks. Three checkmarks means: ‘this audience is very-much interested in this feature’, two means: ‘this audience is interested in this feature’, one means: ‘this audience is only partly interested in this feature’ and zero checks means: ‘this audience is not interested at all in this feature’. Click here to see completed form with all the site’s features ranked by importance.
Go across each row and count the number of check marks. The one with the most checks is the feature of your site that has the most broad appeal across all of your different audience types – so you should probably make sure it’s fairly prominent. The one with the least amount of checks can be a link you only put in the footer or on a page that the audience it appeals to visits regularly. This will allow you to have a website that contains a lot of information without having a navigation that is unnecessarily cluttered. Everything has a place and everything in it’s place.
Also, if you examine your target audience’s column you can quickly see the features they are most interested in. This will help you know what needs to be prominent in addition to the features that have broad appeal across all your audiences.
Taking the time to talk with your clients about who their website needs to reach and what they need it to do will help you make informed decisions about the site’s overall organization. Having the answers to these two important questions also helps resolve any conflicts or disagreements that may arise between you and your client by arming you both with objective information. This creates a foundation for productive, helpful conversations where both parties can discuss the present problems at hand instead of wasting time arguing over who knows better: the educated ‘expert ‘(you) or the person-who-owns-the-business-and-is-paying-you (them).