Information Architecture – The Start of a Great User Experience

I recently attended a networking event where I introduced myself as a Content Strategist. Apparently amused by my job title, my new acquaintance asked, “And just what does a Content Strategist do?”

I explained that my role in any new web project is to thoroughly research and analyze the client, their industry and their customers and then collaborate to develop the information architecture, site plan and messaging that will support both the company’s goals and the visitor’s expectations. (It’s not a short answer, unfortunately!)

His response then gave me reason to smirk. “So why don’t you just look at competitor’s websites and do what they do?” I had fun with that one! I explained that so many websites are designed from an organization point-of-view rather than from the visitor – prospective customer – point-of-view. At Top Draw, we choose to build websites with user experience in mind. It’s just one of the elements that sets us apart! Always keen on fine-tuning our products and services, I recently jumped at the chance to attend a user experience conference in Calgary.

UX stands for user experience

Follow the UX Leader is a series of day-long training sessions about building websites that focus on user experience. I had the good fortune to attend just one session of four, but thoroughly enjoyed all that this interactive workshop had to offer. This particular session on Information Architecture (IA) was all about designing the structure of websites with the customer in mind. Our facilitator, Jeff Parks, summed up IA as “the start of a great user experience”.

Throughout the day, our small groups collaborated on developing the IA of websites from four different industries – a mobile company, a university, a car dealership and a travel agency. We rotated through the industries so we had a chance to work on 3 of the 4 sites.

Framing the concept of user experience

  • Only 15% of web traffic typically lands on a home page, so it’s critical to help visitors find what they’re looking for no matter where they enter a site
  • People spend 7 – 10 seconds looking for information; if they don’t find what they’re looking for almost immediately, they’ll move on (often to another website)
  • People don’t “read” online; they scan and skim a page looking for answers to their questions (and usually in an “F” pattern)
  • And one of my personal favorites (since I wrote a post about this some time ago) – “Content is king. But context is kingdom.” Basically, the presentation and ultimately, the “findability” of important information determines whether you can actually influence people’s behavior.

Closed and open card-sorting

With these concepts in mind, we went to work card-sorting. Sounds very technical, but card-sorting is simply using cue cards and sticky notes and moving around pieces of content (pages, etc.) until they make sense. We did both closed card-sorting (where we just re-arranged pre-determined main and sub-pages) and open card-sorting (where we created our own main pages). Through both of these exercises, it became apparent, based on the page names we were given, that the websites we were working on were very much “company” focused. When we started with a blank slate (ie. became the customer) and analyzed the content from this self-serving perspective, the sites began to take very different shapes.

For instance, when we worked on the car dealership site, rather than focusing on the logical arrangement of categories for the main navigation, we decided to present the information according to our own needs as a customer. Either we visit a car dealership website to 1. buy a vehicle or 2. to have our vehicle serviced. Rather than making visitors search for information in long-list menus, our home page was focused on immediately connecting with the customer – are you here to buy or for service?, then funneling them down an information channel. Buying a car? What make and model? What features are important? Options? Then we provided information on financing. The structure of our website guided car shoppers through the buying experience.

Personas – Who are the real customers?

The next exercise took our IAs into very interesting directions. Each group was given a specific persona (a comprehensive profile on an actual customer) and we then had to tailor the site structure to their values and goals. We adopted the university website for this assignment. Our persona was a middle-aged single mom who was sending her son off to university in a foreign country. We had to ensure that our site met her specific needs, concerns and questions – even her vocabulary.

One interesting take-away from this exercise was how we dealt with the suggestion of including an FAQ page for any information that didn’t really fit within our sections and pages. Upon discussion, we decided that if we haven’t addressed all of her needs within our site structure, we haven’t done a good job on the IA. In other words, if those questions are important enough to be asked, they should be organized into the structure of the website so they are easy to find. FAQ’s shouldn’t just be a catch-all for information.

Mobile considerations

The evolution of the sites was dramatic throughout the day, and it showed us how critical it is to analyze an industry from the customer point-of-view, even to a granular level. The challenge is to find the right combination/compromise of structure and function that accommodates the unique personas of different target markets.

Our final challenge was to then evaluate our “persona” websites from a mobile point-of-view, the newest element in website usage, but one that is growing exponentially. When the mobile website group was asked what kind of information a “67-year old non-techie senior whose daughter wants him to have a cell phone” would need on a mobile site, they responded…a phone number that connects him to a real person – that’s it! Doesn’t that just make sense? He doesn’t really want a phone. Probably has no clue how to use one. Why build a complex site and menu for someone who just needs to talk to someone who can help him? Brilliant!

To sum it up…

A website may be about a company, but it’s not intended for the company, it’s intended for its customers. That’s how we build websites at Top Draw.

I’m heading back to another round of Follow the UX Leader in October, this time on Writing for the Web and Content Strategy. Looking forward to more hands-on learning!