Let me guess. You’ve found yourself here because you have been given the task of organizing your website’s content and you are really not looking forward to it. It’s not like web development where you get to do things that impress people by making a website do interesting things. It’s not like web design where you get to make things pretty. Nope, website information architecture is about as much fun for most people as organizing the pantry or the closet.
The problem is, you can’t close a door on your website. Eventually, the general population, i.e. the complete strangers who visit your website, are going to know exactly how much effort you put into your information architecture, or how little, as is too often the case.
What is Information Architecture and Why Is it Important?
In short, information architecture is how your web content is organized. The concept is not unlike how products are arranged in a store. Imagine a store where everything was thrown together in a few bins and the customers were left to sort of out on their own. Probably not the best experience.
Same thing goes for websites, except without the benefit of holding someone on your website physically, it’s much easier for them to say “I’d rather gouge out my eyes than remain here,” and exit your website within seconds. Good information architecture makes for a better website and happier website visitors. Happy visitors are more likely to do what you want whether it’s buy things or a service, or tell their friends how awesome you are.
A few years back, those tasked with information architecture for websites would organize things linearly, not unlike a table of contents or a flow chart. But now, with sophisticated content management systems that can deliver content on demand and in a variety of arrangements determined by visitor preferences, information architecture needs to be a bit more sophisticated.
These days a website is more like a furniture store, with small concentrated presentation areas that sometimes share content with other areas. Your visitors are not likely to go in a straight line from homepage to landing page to content page. Instead, they’ll search for what they want externally, visit, engage, and leave. At the same time, the content does need to have a set spot on the website since duplicating content is frowned upon and hard to manage. To accommodate this, one of the most effective ways to organize your content is to build an information architecture that organizes content by type and offers more than one way, navigationally to get to the same information.
How Do I Get Started?
Sounds complicated? Maybe. There are two really difficult parts to this process. One, is gathering your content so you know what you need to organize. The other is convincing the decision makers that one way of organizing the content is better than another. Often, there are multiple ways to organize the data but you need to be brave and pick one.
Things you should consider when you organize your content are:
- Type of content, e.g. product lines
- What audience the content is for
- What you want people to do when they come to your website
- Historical visitor behavior data
Things you should not base the organization of your content on are:
- Internal organizational structure
- Internal business personalities
- Pre-existing website structure
- Inside stakeholder opinion only
- Outside firm opinion only
Are We Having Fun Yet?
OK, as promised, here is the part where things get fun. Well, at least what I find really fun and I’ll disclaim that I happen to love organizing closets, pantries, and my sock drawer, but I digress.
Every time I work on a web project with other people, the information architecture always presents itself as a spreadsheet-type monster. Sure it puts everything in it’s place, but it’s boring and 2-dimensional. What I find more useful is information architecture that you can play with. The benefits are:
- Can work out real-life navigation structure to see if people are going to get lost
- Easier to demonstrate an actual website than a spreadsheet
- Can make the interactive information architecture look nice, if you’re into that sort of thing, without having to worry about browser/device rendoring or responsive design because it’s just for testing. Seriously, go ahead and use a table or experimental CSS to layout.
- If all goes well, you can build your wireframes and design on it
- When the information architecture gets approved, you can use the directory structure as your sitemap
As a web designer, presenting the architecture of a website in an actual website has always seemed like a good idea and the more people I speak with, it seems like an idea that is catching on. Below is a summary of the steps in creating an interactive information architecture.
- Inventory your entire site
- Get rid of outdated or bad content
- Add any new content needed (just need a page name for I.A.)
- Sort content by type or audience
- Create a very basic html website (you can do this in notepad even)
- Create pages to accommodate content (all they need to have is the navigation and a name)
- Create navigation
- Play around with organization until it provides good usability and allows visitors to accomplish goals
Enjoy and have a good time with your website information architecture!