Part 3, Why Bad Websites Happen to Good Companies: Misunderstanding or Neglecting Information Architecture
Information Architecture (IA) refers to the organization and presentation of information on your website. Sounds simple enough, but many website owners and designers give it very little (if any) thought. Fundamental to the IA process is thinking through what information your visitors might come to your website to find, and providing obvious pathways designed to lead them to it.
The first part of the process is to identify your audiences. We’ve used the plural because most companies have more than one audience. Let’s say your company sells a technical widget to other companies (B2B). Your audiences might break down as follows in a particular company:
- the technician who will use the widget, and needs details about how it works
- the technician’s manager who authorizes the purchase and needs ROI information
- the marketing manager who sells the company’s services and needs information about how the widget provides them with a competitive advantage.
Each needs different kinds of information to make a buying decision, or use your product, or to help them do their jobs. Rather than looking at your information from the perspective of "what-I-have-to-say," try looking at it from the perspective of your audience: "what-I-need-to-know." You might discover that some of the information your visitors need is not on your website, in which case, you need to create it. (Don’t settle for the lame excuse, "They’ll just have to call us for that information." Because they won’t.)
If you have clearly distinguishable audiences with different needs, you might consider addressing them separately on the homepage, with action messages/links directed at each audience, which allows visitors to self-select into one of the audience groups and go to a "start page" written to address them from their perspective. This requires brief, well-written, motivating action messages, but it can show your various audiences that you understand who they are and what their needs are.
Apart from creating special pathways for important audience segments, all websites need an easily understood, "intuitive" global navigation system. That means intuitive from your audience’s point of view, not necessarily yours. Intuitive navigation always rests on a well-thought-through information architecture.
If you want to see how NOT to create intuitive navigation, go to virtually any government website (though they’re getting better). It’s likely you will see information organized by government department, rather than by what visitors want to know. If you are looking for information about a particular service or program, you first must figure out which department is responsible for it. Then you may be able to navigate to the information, or maybe not. It works great for government employees who understand how the system is constructed; not so great for most constituents.
The basics that must appear on all website navigation (the labels can vary) is:
- Home (no, making your logo a link to the home page is not obvious to everyone)
- Products and/or Services
- About Us
- Contact Us
Those are the minimum global navigation items for a business website, but most sites contain more, depending on the kind of business and the ways it chooses to engage its audiences. Keep in mind that, if your customers can’t find the information they need on your website, they may buy an inferior product or service from a company that does a better job of providing information (ouch!).
Effective information architecture can only be developed by understanding and considering the needs of your visitors. It requires some thought and a real effort to look at your information from their perspective. Done well, it can result in more business. Done badly, it can turn business away.
For more posts in this series, see the “Bad Websites/Good Companies” category at right.