How to Plan Site Architecture, The Right Way
If making a website is like building a house, then planning the content is like laying the foundations. You may end up with a beautiful, desirable house in the short term, but if you've cut corners, or failed to plan your foundations properly, your building is at risk of falling down. And so it is with your website. If you don't spend time planning how your audience will interact with your content in the most intuitive possible way, you're not going to benefit from the best possible sales or conversions. Worse still, if you get it really wrong, you could alienate a large portion of your audience.
How and Why You Should Plan Site Architecture
What is Site Architecture?
According to wikipedia, website architecture is “an approach to the design and planning of websites that [...] requires particular attention to web content, the business plan, usability, interaction design, information architecture and web design.”
Quite a broad perspective, right? But to sharpen our definition, let's say that it differs from 'web
design' in being the discipline of organising website content.
Why is it Worthy of its Own Article?
Because IA, or 'content design' is like much else in design – there's no predetermined 'correct' way to do it. Each site poses its own particular difficulties, which can be solved in a number of ways. But there are definitely 'good' approaches, and ways of minimising the risks of getting it wrong, which is where this article comes in.
Where Should I Start?
Planning and organising content for a large website can be very time consuming. It requires a particular aptitude for being able to see the big picture. Not only that, you need to be able to 'see' the content from a prospect's perspective. Which may mean breaking out of the client's own content classification boundaries. (A word of warning: if you have to do this, be prepared to meet resistance, and come armed with a very strong argument...).
But here's a checklist that can help you ensure you've covered all bases before you present your scheme to the client.
- What are the website's goals? Without knowing this in specific, agreed terms, it's impossible to plan content effectively.
- What pages need to be included?
- Do the pages make sense as individual content units, and do they relate to each other in a logical way?
- Will the client be adding content once the site is published?
- If so, how will you plan for future content in your prototype?
- How many kinds of visitor will you have? (e.g. logged in, logged out, membership types, buyer, seller etc)
- What is the primary objective for each kind of visitor?
- How can my navigation scheme adapt or be flexible to potentially divergent goals?
If you follow this list, you should end up with a scheme you can justify to your client every step of the way. And that's time spent saving time, if you will.
Practical Ways to Plan Your Content
Traditionally, the content for large websites has been planned by someone holding a management position in that company. Someone who knows a great deal about what's important to their business and who their customers are – important stuff. But also someone who knows nothing about translating their business needs into an effective website. But as businesses become more web savvy, and competition hots up, careful planning is becoming an integral part of succeeding online. So where to start?
Buying and Selling
You can't know too much about what you're selling or who you're selling it to. Of course, every project is restricted in time and budget, but you need to make it your business to find out and agree on what you are selling and to whom.
Don't get bogged down with semantics here. You may be 'selling' a newsletter signup – there's no cost, but it's the desired user action which every we do is leading towards. And you need to be specific. It's no use saying 'we sell to people who buy widgets'. You need to know their age, gender, occupation, location, lifestyle choices, whether they own their own home. A profile of your customer allows you to communicate directly to them, using language and values they understand.
Knowing who your customer is, and what motivates her, you can now begin to work out how best to present your content – your message – to your audience. You know your customers buy widgets, but do you know how they buy them? More importantly, what features they value, and what terms they use to describe them? If you know that widget buyers make buying decisions based on colour, material, shape or designer, you can make sure that your meta data supports finding products based on user preference quickly and intuitively. There's no point prioritising product weight if everyone searches by colour.
Keep the Traffic Moving
One of the big mistakes I see all the time, even on sites that really ought to know better is dead ends. Pages that go nowhere. There is literally no excuse for a page that goes nowhere – even your 'thanks for buying' page is an opportunity. To get a testimonial, a newsletter signup, another purchase, a recommendation, a social media share. I could think of more.
The Heinz 404 error page makes every effort to create opportunity from an error by presenting a search field, some simple navigation choices, and a neat visual metaphor for an empty page
As a general rule, give each page one specific, unique purpose. The more tasks a page is trying to help the user accomplish, the more likely it is to fail.
While many sites still use a progress tracker for their checkout – a perfectly good method in itself,
Amazon takes it a stage further with their one-click checkout
The Home Page is No Longer a Web Page
If you're building a small brochure site for your local tradesman, the chances are that web architecture isn't something you need to know about. The amount of content is so small that placing it is an exercise in the obvious. Time spent seriously planning it is likely to inflate your final invoice more than your client's bottom line. But for larger sites with more complex needs, you can't underestimate the role of the home page. No longer a place to hang your welcome sign, the modern home page is now something of a hybrid between a magazine contents page and an index. Somehow, your home page needs to condense your primary messages into small enough chunks, prioritised in such a way as to lead your prospects exactly where they need (and you want them) to go.
Doing this on a single page is no mean feat, and is partly the reason we see so many content carousels in current web design trends. They allow us to present several important messages, along with calls to action without cluttering the page, and effectively cramming the viewer out.
One effective method is to summarise your content with a set of 'bit-size' teasers. A sentence, short paragraph and/or image accompanied by a call to action for each distinct area of content, e.g. about us, portfolio, services and so on.
Apple don't clutter their homepage. Instead they take advantage of widespread brand recognition through other media to condense their proposition into a simple, stylish and clear set of choices anyone can understand
Say you're selling flowers online. You need to design a checkout that converts as many prospects as possible. Knowing common objections to completing the sale helps you achieve this because you can take the opportunity to overcome objections during the sale. For example, say your prospect is buying flowers for mother's day. She knows this is probably your busiest day of the year, so she's worried that you may not deliver on time. She may be thinking of going to Interflora – unless you can reassure her, and retain her trust throughout the transaction. One way of doing this would be to include a link to 'our delivery promise' on the shopping cart. Other features such as 'how to track your order' or 'what if the recipient isn't home?' could be the only thing standing between you and a sale.
The Free People checkout includes a sub navigation including a phone number to help users overcome common objections while they complete the sale.
Nothing breaks a website quite like the average user, right? And it's too easy to get so close to your project that you can't see it objectively anymore. Which is why you need some kind of validation that all your hard work is delivering the intended results. By the time your site is wireframed, you should be able to hand it over to your bloke-on-the-street team of website testers to try out. If the budget won't allow for this, your boyfriend/girlfriend, friend, or anyone who is still talking to you will have to do. Just getting a fresh pair of eyes on it can reveal all sorts of omissions and obstacles. But if a stranger to the project can complete the main tasks the website is designed to carry out, you're doing something right.
Fail to Plan is Plan to Fail
Planning your website architecture is crucial for the its scalability and success. How do you plan your website architecture? Do you follow any particular guidelines or simply go with your gut feelings? Let us know in the comments below.