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WebSense: Organizing Your Web Content

Finding information on the Internet can be difficult. It is important to the success of your website that you make it easy for your users to find what they need. How important? Some estimates say surfers give up looking for what they want 50% of the time or more.

Some web builders answer this need by adding a search function to the home page. This is often used as a crutch for not taking the time to create an effective Information Architecture.

The information architecture, or the organization of information for the site, is independent of the site’s graphic design, and should be designed with the goal of making it easy for your intended users to find the information or services that they are looking for. Once a organizational structure is created, an information design can be created that will help users navigate the information easier. It is important to keep the information architecture separate from the information design. One reason is that while the methods of organizing information are relatively static, design is a constantly evolving area where different looks appeal to different demographics.

Prerequisites

Before creating a web site’s structure, there are several things that you should know: the goals, the audience, the wish list, and the content for the site.

What is the purpose of the site? A site must have clear goals to be successful. Goals should be identified for both the people creating the site and for the intended user, because these goals are sometimes different. An example would be Amazon.com, where the company’s initial goal was to rapidly increase its user base, while the goal of the user might be to buy books inexpensively. These different goals should be known and taken into account when structuring the site.

Third, you should create a wish list of all the content or services that will be in the site, or that may be in the site down the road. This is very important to do up front, because if adding features to the site means changing the structure, it may result in all pages needing to be changed.

Finally, you should create an inventory of all existing content or services that will be going immediately into the site. By looking at the type and scope of these items, one can determine the most likely methods to be used to organize them.

Ways of Organizing Information

There are two main ways to organize information: ordered and by categories. Items can be ordered in alphabetical, chronological, and continuum orders, and by location. They also can be grouped into categories such as topics, tasks or audience.

Ordering Information
Alphabetical

This method works best when dealing with large amounts of information. This is because, while it may not group similar elements together, it can make it very easy to find one item out of thousands. Whenever one has over 10 or 15 items, alphabetical ordering should be considered.

Chronological
Time is the most effective way to organize information where dates and times are an important feature of the information. A chronology is good for scheduling meetings because it is very important exactly when the meeting will be held. Another example is dates in history, or a timeline of events. These are very useful ways of organizing information, especially when one event leads to another.

Location
Information can also be organized by spatially. Companies with branches in different geographic areas often will put a map on their site that shows what geographic area is serviced by each branch of their companies. It is also important to take into account the importance of location in the web page itself; western audience normally consider information at the top and the left the most important. For this reason, one should usually put the most important information at the top of the page.

Continuum
Many items are best organized in a continuum or range; some examples would be ordering things from cold to hot, smallest to biggest, or cheapest to most expensive. Items can be ordered in a continuum visually, numerically, or by values.

Categorizing Information
Topics
Many sites are organized by topic area. Yahoo is an example. It has 14 top-level categories, such as Arts & Humanities, Entertainment, and Health. Topic categories are most effective when it is obvious what topic area an item belongs in. Yahoo is well organized, so usually it is quite clear where to look for information. However, you might not know whether classical music would be found in the Arts & Humanities area or in the Entertainment area. This problem demonstrates why topic categorization is best used when deciding between very distinct categories.

Audience
There are a lot of times when you may want to organize information by audience. One example of sorting information information by audience is the motion picture rating system or G, PG, etc. Anyone putting information on the web consider whether their content has a need to be organized by content. Obviously, if you have any content that is inappropriate for children you will want to segregate that. But you are more likely to have content that is of interest to different demographics. For example, a financial organization may want to have areas for different age of audiences; younger clients would be more likely to be interested in things like mortgage borrowing and saving for college, while older audiences would be more likely to be interested in retirement plans and home equity loans.

Tasks
Sites that have services often organize them by types of tasks. Auctions, Classified Ads can be organized under the task of shopping. A site map and Find can be organized under the task of searching. This sort of organization works best when there are multiple tasks one will one to do at a site.

Website Information Architecture
The best websites don’t stick fanatically to one method of organization, but instead utilize a combination of the best methods for their audience. Typically, one should determine 5-10 main categories of information or services that will be contained within a site. Within each main category you may organize items in a different way. For example, a corporate site might have 5 main categories, each organized in a different way: Company Info (alphabetical), News (by date), Products (by category), Branches (by location), and Services (by task).

You will want to first identify the 5-10 main main categories of information for your site. Once you have done this, you should look at all the existing content that you have and determine what areas it fits into. You should also look at your wish list and make sure that your categories will accommodate future growth of the site.

Next, you should look at each of these categories and determine the best way to organize the items in each category. You will find that many items can be organized in many ways. For example, someone selling used cars online could organize them alphabetically (by model), chronologically (by year), or categories (SUV’s, Mini-Vans, Sports Cars). You will need to use your goals and audience as factors in determining the best ways to organize your site. You may want to include multiple ways of organizing the information to help different types of users get what they want.

Depth vs Breadth in Your Navigation
You also will want to determine how deep or wide your navigation structure should be. As a rule of thumb, the more content you have, the wider your options should be on your home page. Because of this, a site with only 100 pages can get away with just listing the main categories on the home page, while a site like Yahoo will list not only the main categories, but the main areas of information within each category. Studies have shown that users prefer sites with home pages that offer a clear view of the breadth of the sites’ content better than ones that have just a few links that link to a rigid hierarchy of information. This is because it is usually quicker to navigate a broad hierarchy of options than a deep one.

Because of this, you should evaluate the structure you come up with against the practical goal of getting to any piece of information contained within the site with as few clicks as possible. This is generally best done by compressing the navigation so that the breadth of information is easily seen from the home page.

Finally, you may want to a category to your home page that is a functional category, or there just to increase the usability of the system. The most common example of this is a “quick link” area. It is common for home pages to add a category of “quick links” that is just a set of links to the most commonly used pages in the site. This makes it easy for the user to get from the home page to the hottest pages very quickly.

Testing
Once you have done this, you should test your structure with members of your audience. This should ideally be done early in the process, so that changes can be quickly and easily be incorporated into the design where needed. Usually this can done inexpensively with just a few people.

About Information Architecture
Information Architecture is a field of information science that focuses on creating systems that facilitate information retrieval. It is library science applied to information systems. It should not confused with information design, which is applying graphic arts techniques to effectively communicate information. An effective information architecture is like creating a Dewey Decimal System for your site. The information design is independent of the graphic design and should be based on known principles of information science. The information design should be designed to facilitate the use of the information architecture in an attractive and effective manner.

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