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Information Architecture – An Introduction

One of my favorite topics in web site design is information architecture. That’s a fancy term that basically corresponds to how you organize the content and navigation for your site. In other words, the method by which you put your content into groups or categories, and thereby build the site’s navigation structure. It’s a question you can consider at any time in your web site’s life, but it really pays to figure it out up front. Having to change the structure of a site that’s already running presents a number of challenges that are best avoided. I’ll start by introducing the concepts, then in my next article I will walk you through the process.

An Overview

When it’s time to organize or reorganize your site’s content, what should be kept in mind? The short answer is a lot. If you don’t want to do a good deal of research to fully understand the concepts, I would suggest hiring a consultant to help you out. I’ll try to cover as much as I can.
Theme Pyramids
The basic structure of almost every site out there is hierarchical – you start with one home page, then move to a number of top level categories. Each of these can have items (like articles or individual products) or other categories. The structure can be drawn like a pyramid or organization chart. The basic idea is to make your home page about your broadest topic – whatever your site as a whole is about. You then break that concept up into logical categories. There is a terrific introduction to the idea of theme pyramids at Search Engine World.
Here are some caveats to keep in mind while creating a theme pyramid:

  • Usability studies have shown that too many choices = no choice at all. Most users won’t take the time to read long lists. I like to limit the top level categories to between 4 and 7.
  • In general, you want your site to be as ‘flat’ as possible. A good goal is to have no page more than 3 clicks from the home page, but that’s not always possible.
  • Users are willing to click 5, 10 or more times to get to content as long as they are confident they are going down the right path.
  • Your categories must be comprehensive and mutually exclusive. That is, they have to cover every piece of content in your site, but also have as little crossover as possible.
  • Category names must be self-explanatory: It must be obvious to the new user exactly what is and isn’t in each of your categories. This applies to sub-categories as well.
  • Large sites may have a lot of content that could belong to multiple categories – sometimes this is just unavoidable. Make sure to think of ways to help users find content if they are looking in a logical but incorrect place.
  • Avoid thinking like an insider – you might not want to use the correct technical term for something if the common name is different. Categorize your content based on your average user’s perceptions, not industry insiders. For example, soccer shoes are technically called boots, but most people don’t know that. You will confuse people less to call them shoes by default and maybe explain somewhere why they’re called boots.
  • Keyword research must be already done for this step to be effective – know the most popular search terms for each category. These is often some back and forth here, as categories are created and then checked for keyword popularity. Do people search for radiator or coolant? You need to know so you can name your categories using the best keywords, and also include other keywords elsewhere on category pages.

By now you should have a good idea of your top-tier categories, at least the concepts each will have. This will be good to keep in mind as we move to a bottom-up approach to sorting all the content. I will detail the steps involved in my next article, so for now I’ll cover some more concepts and research to keep in mind during the entire process.
Consistency is Crucial
It’s important that your user have to learn as little as possible in order to use your web site. Follow as many conventions as possible when organizing and placing your content – don’t think of a new name for ‘shipping policy’ because every user already knows what to expect from that title. Don’t make users have to expand a menu to navigate – (optional menu expansion can please more advanced users) that’s an extra step. Make your site work the same way in every category. If you have a category of Dodge car reviews and one for Ford cars, make sure the user can operate both the same way. Either underline all your links or none of them – there are tons of little conventions like this that are basically rules to how a site works – make sure to follow them consistently.
Get Others’ Opinions
Tunnel vision is a big pitfall that takes work to avoid – no matter how confusing a site’s structure, it will make sense if you came up with it and have been working with it for weeks or months. Regularly have non-insiders and lay people look at your organization and navigation to get their impressions.
Test, Update, Test, Repeat
It can be very instructive to run your own usability study, or even just having people fill out a survey. Some of your site structure will be sort of set in stone once you launch, so try to discover problems beforehand. Some things can be tested after going live for tweaking, like lower level category organization and category names.
Everything is Self-Explanatory
Help your users learn your site – provide multiple paths and methods of navigation. Make sure to build a site map. You should make sure your navigation makes it easy to understand the structure of your web site. Sub-categories should be displayed under their parents, and breadcrumb navigation can also help. Many designers believe that the side navigation is a fall-back, and that primary user navigation should be provided in the main content window to help direct users where they need to go. Never count on a user understanding your navigation, site structure, or design philosophy in order to accomplish something.
Call To Action
Every page on your site needs to contain at least one call to action – something that you want the user to do. If the page is an informative article about the history of your company, provide ways to contact you. If your goal for the page was just to get the reader to read it, think about what else you would like the user to do. Click to find the products discussed in your article? Learn more about some topic? Make sure you know. It’s ok to have more than one goal action for the user, but don’t clutter the page with them. You shouldn’t need to have more than two.
Know Your Users
Do most of your users share any traits? Do they vary greatly in their web savvy, or are they usually at a certain level? What can you say about the average user’s state of mind – will they be likely to click interesting things or drive straight to their goal? Are they impatient or leisurely? Are they more or less likely to have broadband access? You need to know every significant way your audience varys from the average Internet user.
Always be Thinking SEO
Always be aware if you want a given page to be ranked for any keywords – certain content like your policies or about us page won’t need to be drawing visitors through a search engine. For the content you do want to optimize, make sure you have an idea of the keywords that will be important before you name or categorize the page. That kind of work up front will make SEO a very simple endeavor, since your site’s structure has done much of the work. All that will be left is writing good titles and content.
As I said before, it’s a lot to keep in mind. This is one of the most important aspects of creating a site, so it really pays to put effort into it.

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I have been working with computers and web sites for 20+ years, and have enjoyed mastering many areas of technology. I have been building websites for about 15 years, and working with NetSuite for more than 10. I have worked with dozens of small and medium-sized companies in that time, helping them to understand and leverage the latest tools to grow their business. My business is all about helping you to maximize your business, and I prefer to establish long-term relationships with clients who are dedicated to embracing smart ways to optimize and expand their business.

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