Do people struggle to find their way around your website? Better Information Architecture can help.
Consider the scenario: You’re browsing a website, but you can’t find any of the actual information you want. The website is confusing, it makes no sense. Trying to navigate your way around the different pages makes you want to tear your hair out in frustration, and often you end up leaving the site altogether.
In a situation like this, restructuring of the site is essential – and to do this properly, you’ll need the help of a little something called Information Architecture.
Information Architecture is just a fancy way of saying ‘ the subject of organising the content and flow of a website’. It’s art and science combined, and it is connected to all aspects of your site; the context, the content, and the users.
It’s a process that’s being carried out by organisations more and more lately as people discover the need to make life easy for their website visitors. The simpler it is to find information, the more likely people will stay on your website, have a positive experience, and hopefully end up becoming a supporter.
An Information Architect’s job is to ensure that the experience a user has when surfing a website is as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
Even a website with hundreds of complex pages can be made into an easy to use, logical website if successful Information Architecture is carried out. Let’s call it creating order from chaos, and take a look how it’s done.
How to use Information Architecture to improve your website
Initiating the Information Architecture process is the first thing you should do when planning a new site or an overhaul of your existing site.
The process of IA can vary quite dramatically from site to site, depending on the number of pages, type of organisation, and the goals of its website visitors. It is up to you to determine whether you want to undertake a very detailed Information Architecture process for your website, or a fairly brief approach to just focus on getting the basics right.
Here’s 10 practical things you can do to make sure every visitor to your website leaves a happy one…
1. Decide upon your site's goals
Let’s face it; you aren’t creating a web site so it can sit there looking pretty. Almost certainly you are looking to achieve something, whether it be to create a web space simply to reach more people, to gain more customers, etc. Whatever your reason, it is essential that before you begin the process of Information Architecture, you are fully aware of and document your site’s goals. Information Architecture is there to help you achieve your goals, so naturally it is important that you and your fellow employees are aware of what they are.
Ask yourself: if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, why bother building a site?
2. Define your audience
Who are your intended audiences? Make a list of these. If appropriate, break the list down into categories depending on what type of site you are creating, e.g. buyers, sellers and dealers. Rank the audience in order of importance.
Being aware of and taking into account your target audience is arguably as important as defining your site’s goals. It all combines to give you a thorough understanding of your aims and objectives when creating this site. You always need to be aware of why you are doing this, and not just get caught up in the tasks and routine.
3. Create scenarios
This is considered to be one of the most enjoyable and creative stages in the process.
Take the list of users you previously compiled, and use your imagination to bring each type of user to life. This is where creating scenarios comes in. If you find it helpful, give a user a name, a background and, most importantly, a task they will be visiting the site to accomplish. Using this example task, write a scenario about how this user could use your site to undertake it. You can’t be too specific at this stage because you usually don’t know what content will be included in your site, but this doesn’t matter. This stage is about using your creative skills to imagine what people will be doing when they visit your site. This will come in very useful later on when you are identifying the content and functional requirements of your website.
4. Competitive analysis
This stage is an excellent way to learn about your own site, and possibly learn from other people’s mistakes. Begin by making a list of all the competitors you are aware of. Ask your colleagues as there may be sites you are not aware of.
Evaluate each site. It is up to you how extensively you do this, whether it is a quick browse through the pages or a documented comparison of each and every website. Being aware of how your competitors are doing things will be very helpful in the long run.
5. Identify content and functional requirements
Using all the information you have gathered and documented so far, begin to develop a list of content elements, and a list of functional requirements. Often a content inventory will also be helpful to create at this point, which is a list of key content and functionality that should appear on your site. It is difficult to give advice at this stage, as every website is so different with different levels of functionality. Just be sure to be creative, but not overambitious. Do you have the time to undertake this task? Do you have the money to implement this?
6. Group and label content using card sorting exercises
This is a stage when gaining feedback from potential users is key. If you can, gather a group of people together and undertake a card sorting session. Write each individual content element on a separate card, and spread them out across a large table. Either ask potential users to sort these cards into logical groups, or attempt to do this yourself. Card sorting is a great way to find out how the users expect the information on your site to be structured and labelled. Companies may think they already have a good idea of how to group their information, but they may be surprised at what they discover. The categories and the labels you choose inform your users what types of content you offer on your web site. By getting a better understanding of how users view your content, you can begin to define a category structure that users will understand.
7. Create wireframes
A wireframe is a visual illustration of a web page. It is designed to illustrate the features, content and links that need to appear on a page so that your designer can take the process further, and your programmers understand the page features and how they are supposed to work.
You want to make sure that your home page reflects the reasons users come to your site. For this reason, it is useful to ensure that the most important and most frequently performed tasks are displayed on the home page.
8. Talk with others and gain feedback
One of the most vital aspects of Information Architecture is gaining feedback along the way. It is all very well to attempt it as a solo task, but how are you to know if you are veering in the wrong direction at any point? Gain feedback at every stage possible, not just from staff but from real web users. This will not only give you an idea of where people are expecting to find certain pages, but also what language they use to describe it.
9. Create a detailed site map
You may want to create a site map to help you organise the structure for your site. A site map is a visual representation of the information architecture of your site. In order to create a site map for your Web site, you should first try to gain an understanding of all of the features, functionality, and content that the web site will contain. Fortunately you will have previously documented all this and created wireframes, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. However, it is vital that you are very thorough, so that everyone understands your intentions and what needs to be done.
10. Test and evaluate
This is the final feedback stage. As you’ve followed the process of Information Architecture you’ve probably learnt a lot – but has it been worthwhile? If it helps, compare the way your website was originally, to the way it is now. How has it improved? You might even consider asking somebody who has never used the website before (or has only used the old version) to navigate their way around it. Do they find the site easy to use? Don’t forget, the entire point of this fairly complex sounding process is simply to make the experience as enjoyable and easy as possible for the user.
Back up your evaluation and assumptions about a better user experience with data fromGoogle Analytics. Look for improvements such as more time spent on each page or on your site as a whole, or increased visitor loyalty through repeat visits, Sign up for a free Google Analytics account and learn more at the Google Conversion University.
Where can I learn more?
More information about Information Architecture is easily accessible online, and courses in the subject are also available.
Or how about some recommended reading from ‘The Information Architecture Institute’?
So there you have it. Developing Information Architecture in this way enables you to design and build a system under the assurance that it will be successful. As I’ve been discovering more about this subject myself I’ve found it fascinating, and can only recommend that you do the same if you want your website to be as successful as possible.
If you want some more advice or assistance on this topic, or anything else related to websites, please feel free to get in contact with us.