Let’s talk information architecture

Filed under: Contributed Column,Print,Technology | Tags:

Right now I’m working on a website that had grown “organically” (which is a polite way we Web designers describe sites that are huge because of the random addition of content with no information structure in place). Seriously, this site makes no sense. I have just found six pages of identical content, and 65 directory pages that were built as a make-shift internal navigation index to try to help people navigate through the site. It’s all I can do to keep from throwing my keyboard through the window.

Before this happens to you, let’s talk prevention.

What is this thing you call “Information Architecture”?

A good architecture for the content of your webiste acts like a scaffolding that supports and displays your Web site content. If your site has more than 30 pages, you need this. Your Web site is supposed to display like a fan, or a skyscraper. If your site feels more like the ocean, you need a new architecture.

Architecture starts with the main navigation, where you pick five or six categories that break your content into meaningful groups. Think about your content in total, and then clump the categories of content into groups — that usually becomes your main navigation.

If you don’t remember what content is actually on your site (hey, it happens more than you’d believe) then take a few minutes to do a site inventory — write down the page titles and a one-sentence description of what’s on the page. Try to use the same words over and over — for example if you have a page on shoe leather, and another page on sole leather, categorize them both as shoe leather. Try to identify broad areas with a lot of content as you go along. Eventually this will become your site navigation.

Once you have the main navigation hammered out, go back into each section to see if there are additional categories that you can break out into sub navigation. Do not try to do the main navigation and the sub navigation at the same time — it’s often overwhelming and confusing to multi task like this.

Who should do this job?

You’ll want to have your process development team create your information architecture instead of your creative team. The creative team often muddies the water by trying to come up with creative navigation labels instead of doing the heavy lifting of sorting the actual content. And yes that’s a slam. Sorry guys.

Once a navigation concept has emerged, the next step is to talk to your tech team to see if what you’re proposing makes sense with your Web site software. Often this back and forth with the tech team refines the thinking process, adds a little more logic and helps flesh out the structure of the site. It’s my favorite part.

And then you’ll have an organized site again. Repeat every two years and you should have a site that’s easy to navigate and much more useful to site visitors. And you won’t have to worry about being written about by me if you ever decide to redevelop your site in the future.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.