Organizations are often tempted to build website content based on the words and phrases that are familiar to them or simply their internal organizational structure. Too often, these terms and organizational buckets are meaningless to website visitors — leaving them confused and without the answers they seek.
That’s an inside-out website: one that’s shaped around the organization’s understanding instead of the user’s needs.
On the web, people rarely stick around if they can’t immediately find what they seek or complete the task they require. A website’s information hierarchy — the way its content is organized and labeled — helps users find what they’re looking for. If that hierarchy doesn’t reflect how they think, they’ll likely leave the site. Worse, they might not even find your site in the first place, because the information hierarchy has big implications for how websites rank in search engine results.
Having a user-friendly information hierarchy is a key requirement in meeting the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA).
Telltale signs of an inside-out site
Content is categorized by organizational teams. This works great for the organization: Business units have siloed webpages for the content they create. The problem is that a user looking for a research release or seeking to complete a job application probably doesn’t know which business unit did the research or posted the job. And organizing a site this way can also result in duplicative and potentially conflicting content if internal teams aren’t aligned.
The names of internal initiatives become content categories. While we love our branded terms, campaign or project names may not be widely known or understood by website users. So a cryptic menu label may go unclicked, even if it links to relevant content. Valuable information can end up hidden under flashy, but unclear, titles.
By determining your users’ goals, needs, and topics of interest, you can align your content with how users conceptualize, seek, and consume information on those topics. Here are a few techniques we use at Reingold:
Conduct user interviews and surveys. Talking with the users you aim to attract and serve is a great way to learn about what they’re seeking and the pain points they’re coming across on your site. It’s also a great opportunity to delve into the terms they use in talking about and searching for information on various topics.
Analyze internal site searches. When users can’t find content, they may use your internal site search. Analyzing the search terms they use provides another valuable source of information about what they’re looking for that isn’t — and should be — readily findable on the site.
Explore topics of interest. Researching the terms and phrases your audiences use on other platforms is a valuable option for identifying potential topical categories for your site. Organizing the site around such relevant topics not only makes the site easier to navigate but also can raise the site’s ranking in search engine results for those terms. Some ways to identify topics of interest include analyzing the relevant terms that people are searching for on Google or using to describe organizations like yours on social media.
Develop user personas. To put users at the forefront of information hierarchy decisions (and any number of other site considerations), we create user personas. Personas describe typical users, grouping them together based on their distinct goals, pain points, levels of understanding, and other characteristics such as demographics. We use personas to help bring the research to life and identify enhancements tailored to each user group. They’re also great tools for educating stakeholders across the organization.
Using these qualitative techniques, we determine what users are looking for and refine the site’s information hierarchy to align with how they seek and use information.
Card sorts. In a card sort, we provide topic cards to users and ask them to sort the cards into categories that they then label. With the results, we can determine website refinements and additional (or fewer) content categories that might be needed.
Tree tests. A tree test is like a backward card sort. We show users the current site map and ask them to find the cards. This highlights what’s already working, what items might be misplaced, and what still needs more labeling work on the site.
Usability testing. Card sorting and tree testing are useful in eliminating testing variables, like visual design elements and page layouts. With usability testing, we bring those variables back into the mix, asking users to complete tasks on the actual site as we monitor and analyze the ease or difficulty of completion. This helps us determine whether page layouts are supporting or distracting from content findability.
The 21st Century IDEA requires federal agencies to design websites around user needs. One of the best places to start is with your information hierarchy. Updating the structure of your website may seem like a daunting task, but even making small, iterative changes can help improve an inside-out website. And it can make a world of difference in making your resources accessible and easy to use.
Ms. Laminack’s clients include the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and leading nonprofits.