This is a brief introduction to information architecture and why it is an important part of your website content strategy. Having a good content strategy can mean the difference between having a nice website, and having a truly effective website. Your content should be easy to find, easy to digest, and substantially relevant to your industry if you want repeat visitors. Even if your site does not have much content, help them to appreciate the value in what you do provide.
What is Information Architecture?
The term “information architect” is attributed to Richard Saul Wurman, who understood the need to categorize data into a coherent structure. Wurman was trained as an architect, but has authored 81 books that have helped individuals understand many different types of information. Categorical organization of information is not a new idea, however. If you’ve ever tried to find a specific text in a library, you may already be familiar with the Dewey Decimal System.
Long before the time of Melvil Dewey, philosophers studied and theorized about human understanding. The art of information architecture is closely tied to the study of “semantics”, or the “meaning” of words and symbols. Aristotle is well-known for his categories of human understanding. Before diving into how this affects web design, we should at least know that the principles have been around for some time.
It would be foolish to begin the construction of a building without blueprints, yet many designers attempt to build websites without adequate planning. The “planning stage” of a physical building includes many correlations to other structure designs. You must be sure your design is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. It must be accessible to as many individuals as possible. Your design must also be able to handle-the-traffic, or you might end up with an engineering disaster.
The first and most important question to ask yourself is this, “What is the purpose of my building?” It may seem natural to ask how many floors the building needs, but if you’re building is a fast-food restaurant, rather than a luxury-hotel, that question is likely not necessary. If you start with a goal in mind, you can make sound business decisions based on that goal. The project will likely run into problems if everyone is focused on the color of the walls, rather than what will sell hamburgers.
Content for your company’s website needs to have the same kind of plan. Sometimes the first client meeting will begin with questions about colors, navigation, or photo galleries. I strongly recommend that if you notice this happening, slow down. It is very easy to make fundamental decisions about a web design (which are sometimes difficult to reverse) before truly discovering what the purpose of the website should be.
The first thing I like to do once I understand the goal, is begin planning a site-map. I am not yet concerned with the layout of content on the page, but only the hierarchical relationship of the content. Generally, content will fall into major categories and sub-categories. This exercise can also help determine whether certain content should be categorized as static-type or article-type. With many content management systems, including WordPress, understanding this distinction early can open up some great possibilities for your site.
The User Interface
Once the organizational structure of content is agreed upon, it is only natural to begin planning the user interface with a wire-frame. In our organization, the designer is already beginning to work on a “mood-board”, but if you are also the designer, it is a good idea to wait a while longer before thinking about colors and fonts. This can be the most difficult part of the process. The wire-frame needs to be flexible enough to make room for the eventual design, but without trying to create a design at this stage.
Usability is still the main concern at this point. If I were the client, usability would always be my main concern. If someone cannot figure out how to buy your product, you will not sell very much of your product. It might be cute to have an item in the main navigation that says “drop us a line!”, but if your customers do not understand that is your contact form, they will not use it. Even worse is not having any kind of usable navigation. Create a layout that is predictable and easy-to-understand. Easy sells more burgers than cute anyways.
Usability testing is extremely important. Unfortunately, it is also often too expensive for my team or my clients to pay for usability testing. This is where I tend to conduct some informal usability testing of my own. I have seen websites advertising $59 or even $29 per user. My methods are quite a bit more informal, but it needs to be said that the feedback you will gain from a critical third-party can be invaluable. I do not always incorporate every suggestion I receive, but I find most of them are worth gold.
You might be wondering why I am suggesting usability testing at this stage in the process. I informally test my designs regularly throughout the development process, but this is the stage where I am wondering, “Should this logo be on the left or right?” and, “Should Clients be nested in the About Us section?”. Getting good user feedback, and even client feedback at this point is crucial, but remember that the end-user is the real customer of your client. Let the client know what the results of your testing are, if and when they conflict with the client’s wishes.
Why do I Need a Strategy?
If all of this strategy and planning seems cumbersome, understand that it can be. Many times, the easier approach for the web designer would be to throw together something that looks good and “call it a day.” Those designs might get approved, and they might pay the bills, but they are not providing a genuine service for their clients. I understand that if my clients succeed, so do I. Any website can be made to look good, but the ones that accomplish their purpose stand apart.
Dollars and Sense
Failing in web usability can be a very costly mistake. There is a now-famous story about Amazon, and how one button that made their checkout process easier increased revenue by 300 million dollars! Even if the amount of money at stake is much less, it has been proven time-and-time again that frustrated visitors do not buy products or generally return. Now which is more important, having a pretty website, or selling burgers?
Useability.gov is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and they have conducted many usability tests (which you can find on their site) which help to show the potential return-on-investment. They have some great information available about information architecture which can help you to organize a content strategy. Their “Questions to ask at kickoff meetings” is fairly similar to the design-brief we use. I recommend using their site as a resource.
Ultimately, the way your visitors access and find your content is inextricably linked to what is known as “accessibility.” That includes web access for individuals with disabilities, but be sure to consider all forms of accessibility. Is your content laid-out in a way that is generally readable? Can senior citizens easily navigate the site? Every person that has difficulty “accessing” your content will likely move on to the competition. Be sure to take into account your audience, and every difficulty they may have to overcome to become your customer.
WebAIM has some great information on web accessbility. Every website should have certain general-practices in place to assist screen-readers, individuals with learning disabilities, or other physical limitations. Taking care to keep your site accessible to as many people as possible is not only good business sense, but it is the right thing to do.
Maintain and Grow
Consider who will be responsible for adding and maintaining your website content. Set guidelines for the site structure, style, and formatting of text. The more organized your information is, the easier your site will be to maintain. Almost every website will start out relatively small, but it is important that the information architecture is flexible enough to grow with your additional content. If a new product is released, the associated pages should naturally have a place in the overall structure.
A well structured website looks good to your visitors, and search engines. If your web site is internally well-linked and hierarchically organized, you can expect better results. Fewer clicks for your visitors to find what they are looking for, and search engine optimization at the same time. I will not get into the search engine benefits in this post, but it is easy to see how many positive ways a proper content strategy can benefit the bottom line.
More Than Just an Internet Presence
If you made it this far, I congratulate you. I hope the importance of information architecture is evident, and you have some of the tools to begin creating an enjoyable experience for your visitors.
If you have some strategies that have worked for you, or thoughts you would like to share, please comment below.
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