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Develop Your Menu Structure – Organize Your Content

Organizing your content in an effective way is critical to the success of your website. Visitors are task oriented, so you need to ensure they can easily complete the tasks that they want to do.

  • You must ensure that your site is simple and straightforward—every page/item added to your site increases its complexity. 
  • You must ensure that your site has a clear focus—too many choices can lead to decision paralysis.
  • You must ensure that how your site is organized is obvious—don’t force people to think.
Each webpage needs a unique title – think of a website as a book—the sections are like chapters of related information in a book.  Websites are a collection of webpages that are organized. Each page is considered a unique web document and multiple related topics are a published in a website. How pages are named is particularly important so that when people search your site they can find what they are looking for (see web search effectiveness). How you write your content is also important (see writing for the web).

When talking about websites, you might hear the term Information Architecture (IA). A website’s information architecture is the organizing framework for your content. At a simple level, a site map illustrates your information architecture. However, information architecture also includes your metadata, classification, navigation and layout. As your information architecture is fundamental to your website, you should expect to spend a signification amount of time and effort in developing it. See the website project guidelines section on developing your information architecture for additional information.

Your information architecture will help people navigate through your site, just as a table of contents, chapter headings, and indexes help you navigate through a book. Your information architecture manifests itself on a website in your content organization and menu structure. Defining the correct IA can be challenging, but it is important to ensure your content is organized in a logical and hierarchical manner—for instance you don’t want to find the last chapter of a book in the middle.

Organizing Your Content – A Hierarchy of Importance

A hierarchical structure is necessary for organizing a website. Beginning with a general overview (the home page), visitors expect that they can drill down to specific sub-sections, and content pages. By grouping the information into a few general "buckets," that become increasingly focused will help you prioritize a logical progression of content. While it may seem logical to group buckets of information that correspond to your organizational structure (think org chart) this can be frustrating and cause confusion for your site visitors.

In order to help your site visitors to achieve their goals, or accomplish their task, you must consider the ways that make sense to them. Essentially, the buckets of information must be logical to your site visitors in order for them to accomplish their task(s).

  • Site diagrams can be very useful when planning your website. The site diagram can help you understand how files are subdivided into sections/folders. It serves as a representation of how your content is organized, and it serves as the guide for your navigation (menu) scheme.
  • Your website management strategy is the driver for developing your information architecture. Your strategy identifies the principles and goals for your site, which in turn help refine your key audience(s) and the top tasks your visitors want to complete. These top tasks will be the cornerstones for your information architecture.
  • Tasks are what drive people to a website. Think about your goal when you visit a website, usually you want to complete a task (e.g. find a phone number). Sites like Google and Amazon are successful because they focus on helping their visitors complete their top tasks—search and buy books, etc. respectively. These tasks inform their information architecture.

Do you know why it is that people come to you site? Do you have any idea what their top tasks are? You may have information such as web reports that can help identify what people search for or visit most frequently on your existing site (e.g. top pages, search queries, etc.). You may also have research that might give you an idea about your audience’s top tasks (survey data, etc.). If not, you may want to do some preliminary research with people you know who visit your site, or talk to people you have the most in-person contact with your primary audience, to use as a starting point.

As part of designing your information architecture, you will also need to identify where information may need to be shared. For example, if you have a role-based structure (faculty and students), some information may be relevant to both roles and will need to be included in both sections. Additionally, you may have separate, but related, sites that you manage that may need to share information. These relationships should be mapped out while you design your information architecture.

Questions that should be answered during the development of your information architecture include:

  • Who are your site’s visitors and what are their top tasks?
  • Should your site be role-based or service/function based?
  • What are the top level classifications/menu options for your site? Will your site need new sections in the future? Is your classification system scalable?
  • Will the top tasks be clearly accessible from the home page?
  • Is your navigation/menu structure clear to your visitors?
  • Does any information appear in multiple sections of your site?
  • Is your information better suited as smaller, audience-specific sites, rather than one large all-encompassing site?

Your information architecture should be technology neutral. Once it is designed, however, it can help you plan your move into the web content management system, as you will have a clear understanding of any dependencies in your information. For example, if one particular page is going to be linked to significantly from other pages, you’d want to create that page earlier in your development so that the links can be added to the other pages as they are created.

Resources

Killer Web Content: Make the Sale, Deliver the Service, Build the Brand by Gerry McGovern, A & C Black Publishers, London 2006

The Web Content Style Guide: An Essential Reference for Online Writers, Editors and Managers by Gerry McGovern, Rob Norton and Catherine O’Dowd Copyright Pearson Education Limited 2002

Content Critical: Gaining Competitive Advantage through High-quality Web Content by Gerry McGovern and Rob Norton Copyright Pearson Education Limited 2002

 

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