Organizing Your Website
Why it matters
- Carleton’s web content is growing exponentially
- We’ve gone from a few sites to hundreds
- Sites that started small are now medium or large
- Sites that were once simple have grown complex
- Users need help to navigate this complexity successfully
- Your audience has information overload
- They are busy multi-taskers with no time to waste
- If they can’t find it fast, they’ll leave—or get very frustrated digging for it
- If they can’t find it, they may email or call, increasing your workload
- If they have a bad web site experience, it reflects on your office or department
Site organization is an ongoing process
- You can’t just organize it once and forget it
- As sites expand, they often outgrow their old structure and need a new approach
- It pays to re-examine your site organization on a regular basis
Most sites grow over time
- Overcrowded navigation: More than 10-12 top level navigation links
- A chaotic home page: Top-level pages growing longer and more crowded
- Rapid growth: Site has doubled or tripled in size without any change in navigation/organization
- Visitor confusion: Emails or calls from users who couldn’t find what they needed—even though it was there
How to tame the wild, woolly beast?
Break your site up into logical groupings.
You can group content by:
- Can be wide audience, e.g. Alumni, Faculty
- Or can be a narrowly defined audience, e.g. "budget managers" or "College Council members"
- E.g. "Forms," "Events," "News," "FAQs," "Photos"
- E.g. "Apply now," "Contact us," "Find resources," "Register for classes"
Which approach is best for your site?
It's a pretty straightforward process in its outline:
- Understand your audience: get inside the heads of the people who use the site.
- Identify organizational principles: Figure out which organizational method(s) make the most sense — based on
- the nature of the content on the site, and
- how your site's visitors think about that content
What does "understand your audience" mean?
So, you want to know how your visitors think, and what is important to them. What you want is an idea of:
- How they categorize the offerings on your site
- What terms they use to describe them
- Which items are most useful to them
- Which items are not useful to them
How to understand your audience
- Try the 5-second test
- Good for seeing if your audience can spot the most important information quickly.
- People only spend about 5 seconds on a page before deciding if it will lead them to the information they are seeking. They skim, make their best guess, and click.
- Hide a page you want to test, then bring it up for 5 seconds in front of a person who is typical of your site users.
- Ask them if they can figure out if it offers a specific piece of information they want.
- NWA.com: See if your friend's flight has landed yet
- FamilyFun.com: Get birthday cake decorating ideas
- WebMD: Find out if that rash is anything to worry about
- Butterball.com: How long should you cook your turkey?
- Fedex.com: Where's that package I sent to Grandma?
- Giving to Carleton: Different ways to make a gift
- Alumni Network: What's the date of Reunion?
- Human Resources: Check the job openings
- Have audience members do a card sort
- Good for identifying audience categories
- 1st round: Have audience members group content pieces and then name those groups
- 2nd round: Provide content pieces and group names and see where they put the content pieces
- Assemble a focus group
- Good for general understanding of audience you serve
- Ask questions like, "What is the most useful thing our office/department/entity does for you?" and "What is the most confusing part of your interactions with our group?"
- Observe people using the site
- Good for identifying trouble spots
- Have people talk through what they are thinking as they use the site
- Note places where they are confused or stalled
- Often useful to provide concrete tasks and see how well they do at completing them
- Solicit feedback
- Good for fixing bugs, broken links, etc.
- Thank people for their feedback and try to fix any simple things as soon as possible
- Listen to your phone calls
- Good for identifying what is both important to visitors but is hard to find
- While you have people on the phone, ask for as much information about what they tried as you can
- Record these calls so you can later go back and find patterns
Test, Make Changes, and Test Again
Even the best testing only gives you a vague idea of what will work for you site's visitors. Once you have assembled the information you need and come up with an idea of how the site would be better organized, do it. But if you stop there you don't know if you have really made an improvement. So the next step is crucial: test again, after the reorganization. Hopefully things will be better, but you may find some issues that you didn't find the first time, or that you introduced when you reorganized.
Should you do a major reorganization or take baby steps?
If the top-level organization of the site is seriously flawed, then it is probably best to do a major reorganization. If you think that the general principles the site was built on still work, then you can move things one at a time. The Web Services Group is happy to provide advice on how to proceed.