As the famous American physicist William Pollard famously once said, ”Information, unless it is organized, processed and available to the right people in a format for decision making, is a burden, not a benefit.” Sage words indeed from a man speaking in the pre-Internet world, before the advent of epidemic levels of information overload.
Pollard’s quote sums up the challenge of modern-day information architecture (IA) as it applies to website design. If content is indeed king, then IA is the infrastructure that allows the king to govern effectively. And, the larger the kingdom, the more crucial that infrastructure becomes.
For many projects involving large, multifaceted organizations, Evolving Web has had to tackle innumerable IA challenges. In doing so, we employ a variety of user experience (UX) techniques, ranging from cutting-edge digital tools to tried-and-tested analogue methods.
IA and UX: What’s The Difference?
Before diving into the details, it’s worth defining the terms IA and UX – two terms that are often used interchangeably – and making clear where they converge and where they don’t.
IA is the process of structuring and organizing web content so that users spend as little time and effort searching for information as possible and are successful in finding what they need. Sitemap development is just one aspect of IA, which also encompasses taxonomy, tags and labels – basically anything that narrows the gap between you and the information you’re looking for.
UX is a key aspect of IA, which relates to the user’s perception of a website’s utility, system efficiency and ease of use. In other words, you can have IA without UX, but not the other way around. Information architects make sure the road gets you from A to B efficiently. UX designers ensure the road is properly paved, illuminated, safe, and enjoyable to drive on.
But while IA can technically exist without UX, it is greatly enhanced by a range of UX tools and techniques.
Women and Gender Equality Canada: Finding Architectural Workarounds
Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE), a federal government department established to advance equality with respect to sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression, approached Evolving Web in 2021 to reorganize its website, which lives within the Canada.ca infrastructure.
Specifically, WAGE was looking to improve its website’s information architecture, navigation and top pages using modern and user-friendly approaches. The original site was built following Canada.ca’s Content and Information Architecture Specification with no IA customizations and represented a mishmash of organizational and topic-based structure and nomenclature.
Early stakeholder interviews revealed that the site’s shortcomings were making it a liability for the organization – so much so that the WAGE staff weren’t even directing people to it in their social media posts. It quickly became clear that a lack of architecture was making the site extremely difficult to navigate.
“If I were living gender-based violence, I wouldn't know where to go for help on this website” explained one interviewee
One major hurdle was that the site’s menu navigation encompassed the entirety of Canada.ca’s menu links, making it impossible to use this menu to navigate within the WAGE site. This basic constraint of the Canada.ca framework made it imperative to create logical information architecture so that page content would serve as wayfinding tools, with homepage content serving as a top-level navigation menu.
To address the IA challenges of the WAGE site, we did the following:
- Stakeholder and user interviews
- Content mapping with Miro
- Creation of website personas
- Tree testing
Through an extensive research and testing process, we were able to wholly restructure WAGE’s site so that the homepage served as a navigational hub for all crucial site content, organized into categories such as “Services and information”, “Most requested” and “What are we doing”. This circumvented the need to use the menu navigation to search for the content while making the most frequently requested content easy to find.
Royal Roads University: Linking Audiences with Content
While the WAGE case was a typical example of information architectural challenges, in some cases clients come to us with very specific challenges. This was the case with Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC, which approached us in 2022 for help with their internal website “Our People” – essentially a publicly viewable intranet.
In the case of Royal Roads, the university was tasked with the problem of directing specific, fine-tuned information to specific internal stakeholder groups, which included full-time faculty members, contractors and support staff. At the time they approached us, they had a website that was close to complete but that was a jumble of content for various audiences, which at best was confusing and at worst had possible legal ramifications.
Solving the problem of the Royal Roads website began with a series of workshops that aimed to nail down precisely what the university’s internal audiences were. Then began the process of analyzing the entire existing site and flagging every single page by audience type.
From there, we constructed a new sitemap, first on Miro, then transferring it to Flowmapp, a platform that allows for more detailed notes on-page content, such as where we could create cross-links. Special attention was paid to the use of labelling, as all content needed to be flagged and searchable by audience type.
Unlike in the case of WAGE, tree testing was not used in the restructuring of the Royal Roads website. Instead, we held workshops with the client to fine-tune the sitemap. The result has been a wholly reorganized site that is set to launch in August 2022.
Evolving Web uses a wide range of UX techniques to solve IA challenges, including ones not used in the above-mentioned cases. Such techniques include:
- Closed card-sorting: a card-sorting technique where the facilitator suggests the categories and the client sorts the cards into said categories
- Open card-sorting: similar to the above except that the client both suggests the categories and sorts the cards into those categories
- Loop11: an online usability testing tool that helps you identify what content on a website is easy to find versus what content requires a lot of searching
Information need never be a burden. With the right UX tools and effective communication, even the most chaotic, poorly organized website can be restructured into something far easier to navigate.