For a business owner, the user path on his website might seem straightforward. You want a site visitor to go to the cart page, add a product, and press “purchase.” But sometimes finding your way around a website can be a daunting task. Site visitors might jump through hoops to get what they need, and this is only revealed by user experience (UX) experts, on usability tests. This is where information architecture (IA) comes in.
Information architecture helps organize, catalog, and structure a website’s information so that users have a clear idea of where they are, understand what they found, and know what to expect going forward. It also enables you to classify and define the relationships between a site’s content types and functionalities. You can apply IA to a website, software, or interactive service (see Peter Morville’s very fun slideshow for information architecture).
Even though the information architecture structures are not always visible in the user interface, they do impact user experience
Content Marketing Manager Tim McDonnell of StorageCraft, spoke to us about the information architecture for the Storagecraft.com redesign project. Starting with user surveys, stories, personas, a content inventory, and labelling content, the team built system maps, navigation schemes, and wireframes leading to design prototypes that would enable an improved user experience.
Information Architecture: The Art of Asking Questions
Information architecture is a process that enables you to delve a bit deeper into the business essentials, says Tim. It’s a rewarding process that helps you get a sense of purpose and starts by asking questions on every bit of information on your website
“A project like this is a very rare opportunity to cross disciplines; it helps you get a sense of purpose. The way of thinking that is required in a website redesign project really helps you get immersed in the essence of your business. It gets you asking really important questions about why you do certain things and who does this serve, what problem does this solve for our user base?” recounts Tim.
Influencing the content strategy of an organization is a gratifying task, however not an easy one. “Plan on having a lot of long days, a lot of long nights but a tremendous reward when you flip the switch,” he adds.
Making Data-driven Decisions with UX in Mind
Information architecture is all about making informed, data-driven decisions. The end goal? An easy flowing user experience (UX):
- Who are your users, and what do they do?
- What are their interests?
- How do they feel about your website?
- What improvements would they like to see?
“The way we began organizing information architecture for this redesign project is with a worldwide qualitative partner survey. We asked them questions about the content on the website, their opinion of the usability, the clarity of the text, the look and feel of the design, ease of use when it comes to particular actions that they wanted to perform on the website,” says Tim McDonnell.
The StorageCraft team checked their egos at the door when users pointed out flaws in the website’s old design. “One comment that came in that was hilarious, was: ‘I feel like the website is yelling at me!’ This big type and bright colors, the layout of the messaging was chaotic on the page. They wanted us to conduct a conversation with them online in a more normal tone of voice,” recounts Tim.
User’s honest feedback should always be a roadmap to begin the redesign project. Without it, you are flying blind with regards to the user experience.
Mapping the User Journey and Understanding User Needs
Information architecture is built upon the user journey map. Whether it is someone who is just investigating your product, looking for more information, or simply looking for your contact number, you need to know what they want and think one step ahead to offer what they need.
“The objective was to improve the UX and make it a place where two kinds of info problems could be solved. One would be awareness and authority. The other half of that equation was to provide within one click easy access to things that established partners and more sophisticated users need to get done. They wanted specifics about product details or system requirements, problems that the products actually solve. These people are further along in the buyer’s journey than somebody who is just doing an initial investigation. We had to make sure that both groups get what they wanted quickly without having to sit through the other audience’s material,” adds Tim.
Addressing the needs of different users on the same website is no easy task: splitting the information into layers and building a modular design helps to make the complex, simple.
Architecture Information Basics: Building Layers of Your Message
With more than primary pages and a task to localize content in 17 languages, the StorageCraft.com redesign project was a monumental task. It added up to thousands of URLs. The team managed to create a welcoming, clear, and effective website by restructuring the content based on purpose and priorities.
“The frustration that people were encountering was that the website is too dense, the page is too crowded, the information hierarchy wasn’t very consistent. In information architecture we had to build the primary and secondary layer of information and make sure that the navigation took people quickly where they need to go,” he recounts.
The website messaging shifted from backup and disaster recovery to business continuity, in order to reach a holistic view of the company’s software. “For most people, their web experience began with ShadowProtect, and it kind of ended there unless someone prompted them to look into the entire recovery solution. There was nothing there that was really meant to show you how these things work together,” adds Tim.
Don’t Stop at the First Milestone – Design is a Journey
What was more important, the user experience is a journey, as the song goes, not a destination. It does not comes into play once when you start your redesign project, and once when you finish. Any website is a living, breathing entity that should be constantly taking in feedback from users, ever-changing to improve. Rehauling everything once every few years is significantly costlier and more disrupting to a business than making small incremental changes, with time.
“Our intent from the beginning was that this was not a fixed and finished product. We hope to continuously tweak it and do it with purpose so that we can track the results for improvements, instead of doing another wholesale scrub,” adds Tim.
To make sure the project has continuity, an experienced team with practical understanding of split testing should be given the freedom to A/B test various features all over the site:
- Menu performance
- CTA performance
- Hierarchy of the information
Be Prepared to Iterate
Information architecture is a collaborative process, keeping in mind both business requirements and user needs. Even with an experienced design agency involved, it’s normal to go through several iterations of a project. The final prototypes might not be the same as your first idea of the outcome.
“We came up with all the requirements and the content outline, the sitemap and how we thought the navigation should work. The materials were submitted to an outside contractor, who in turn sent their best practices recommendations back to us. We went through several iterations at each stage of the scoping process. Once we had the different types of content modules that we wanted, they began the design process and actually assembling the modules into the design of the page,” recounts Tim.
Understand the Platform that You’re Building on
StorageCraft built on Drupal, an open source platform for content management. This has specific advantages and limitations, just as any other system. But it limited the choice in design agencies. At the same time, fully understanding the platform you’re building on will give you a good idea of what is possible and what is not, design-wise.
“There were advantages for us, and there were reasons why we wanted to do it. To understand the limitations of the platform while assuming that certain features can happen in the design is really helpful. Make sure you fully understand the technical limitations of the platform you are building on before you commit to features that may be really tough to implement,” adds Tim.
Consider Workflow Implications on a Redesign Project
He encourages anyone planning for a redesign project to thoroughly consider asset management. Before even thinking about hiring a contractor, make sure to:
- Document workflows
- Catalog all types of content
- Work out content migration processes
- Automate the process as much as possible
“Everybody thinks of the pretty design and how good the page is going to look. Very few people consider the workflow implications on your in-house team once the site is deployed,” says Tim.
Closely Integrate Designer and Developer Teams
One challenge when working on information architecture for a massive redesign project is closely integrating developers, marketing, and design teams. Make sure all parties are communicating efficiently for best results.
“It happens a lot of times when people are working remotely. Rather than checking things out at the source, they begin to work on a set of assumptions. Then they find out that what the client expected is different. Or, what happened on our end, we believed a certain type of functionality might be available for a particular page—this without really checking it out in detail with the contractor’s development team. It was a constant balancing act to resolve those assumptions and create checkpoints along the way,” recounts Tim.
He adds if he would start over the project, he would push for agile development, rather than doing it all at once. The “waterfall” approach causes more stress at the end of the project, he says. “I would look closely at integrating coders and developers more early on. This way, when you are talking about functionality, the people who are actually going to touch the code are there and can advise you on what will work and what will not work,” Tim concludes.