The cost of disrupting an established business has dropped considerably. In the media sector alone you can see how start-ups like journalism.co.uk and TheMediaBriefing are able to almost instantly compete on a level digital playing field with titles like Media Week or Press Gazette. Name any vertical, and there will almost certainly be a new digital-only entrant into the market – look at The Arts Desk or Huffington Post. The arrival of sites like The Kernel suggest we are about to see a second wave of disruption as digital incumbents like Techcrunch become stale and corporatised.
So, if your operation on the web could be instantly disrupted, how do you defend yourself? Having better content is only one part of the answer. Making the best of that content so that it is discoverable, and always displayed in the right context for the user becomes ever more vital.
This is where information architecture comes into play. Described as “the art and science of organising websites”, IAs are also sometimes lovingly referred to as the librarians of the internet. Their role is to classify and organise content, and to test with your end users the extent to which that classification suits their needs, or, indeed, whether they understand it at all.
Navigation around a website is important. The labels we apply to sections must be meaningful to the end user, and help reassure them that even if they haven’t found the right piece f information yet, they are close enough to it to continue exploring your site rather than heading off to a rival or back to Google.
A good information architecture will support both user needs and business goals. When a user is reading an article, what do you want them to do next? Sign up for the newsletter? Share it on Facebook? Make a purchase? Leave a comment? Some businesses might be happy with any of those outcomes, but clearly some carry more value than others. The structure of your article page, and the prominence with which those options are presented will govern which ones users are more likely to interact with.
If you have a transactional element to your website, then presenting the right facets of information to your user is crucial to completing a sale. Details like size and colour for physical goods, or length or duration for digital goods might be key deciding factors. You need to strike a balance between overwhelming the user with detail, and giving them enough information that they don’t get frustrated. User testing, where real people evaluate the usefulness and performance of your website design, is a much better indicator of whether it will be a success than if the bosses husband thinks it looks good.
Site search is another area often neglected. Many businesses plug in an off-the-shelf search solution, and then never configure it, or check how it is being used. It isn’t just about listing the most popular searches on your site – it is about finding which search terms generate no results, which popular search terms generate low click-throughs on the results, and how the search behaves when users put in dates or author names or serial numbers.
Lou Rosenfeld’s “Search Analytics for Your Site” is the definitive read on the topic, and for a broader view, he and Peter Morville wrote “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”. Even if you don’t want to be an IA yourself, by reading that book you can’t fail to end up with a better grasp of how websites need to be better organised to get a chance of success.
One of the difficulties that information architects have traditionally had in selling their services is that, with hindsight, most of the decisions they make appear to be common sense on “stating the obvious”. But if you are not taking advantage of those common sense skills, sooner or later one of your competitors will be.
– Read Martin’s recent post for TheMediaBriefing: “Why your news brand should take part in the ebook publishing revolution“
Martin Belam is Lead User Experience & Information Architect for guardian.co.uk, contributing editor for FUMSI and blogs about UX/IA, digital media & journalism on currybet.net
Picture by Murdocke on Flickr via a Creative Commons licence.