Information architecture and site navigation

In this step, you’ll review the structure of your site to ensure your navigation is tailored towards your users. You can also reference a copy of the presentation from our site navigation workshop or view a recording of the workshop.

Why am I doing this?

Have you ever been on a website where you just couldn’t find what you were looking for? It’s frustrating! This issue is at the heart of information architecture and site navigation. Information architecture is all about how the content on your site is organized, how all this content relates to each other, and how your content is labeled in your navigation. Your information architecture comes to life in how you structure and arrange the menu on your website. This step can be used to completely reimagine your site navigation or to check your existing structure for gaps or misalignment. Regardless of where you are in the process, putting some thought into how your site is structured is crucial for creating an optimal experience for your users. 

What does this have to do with the overall content strategy process?

Your information architecture and site navigation connects your users with the content they need. The navigational structure of your website should help you accomplish your website goals and be grounded in your understanding of your users. In order to create engaging content and strong page layouts, you need to have a good grasp on how all your pages relate to each other and how your users may move through your website. Before rethinking and reviewing your information architecture, it’s helpful to review the content on your site so you can start with a solid understanding of your existing content. All these steps work together to inform your information architecture and create a seamless experience for your user. 

What steps should I take to review and update my information architecture and site navigation?

Rethinking and reviewing your site navigation needs to start with the intention to structure your site in a way that benefits your users. Your site menu should reflect how your users interact with your website and not necessarily how your organization is structured internally. Rather than project the way that your department is organized internally, your navigation should be tailored to how your users approach your website while still staying true to your internal organizational goals for your website. To accomplish this, we’ll review a strategy called “affinity mapping,” which will help you produce a sound, user-centered navigational structure. 

Affinity mapping and website structure

Typically, this exercise is conducted in person on a large whiteboard or wall with other members in your department or organization to get a number of perspectives. If you want to collaborate virtually you can check out MURAL or other virtual whiteboard tools. These are the steps to conduct an affinity mapping exercise:

  1. First, think about your different users and audiences. Create post-its (either physical or virtual) of your users’ needs: why are your users coming to your site? What questions do they have? What are they looking for? What are they hoping to accomplish? Ideally, you should start with the exercises articulated in the understanding your users documentation
  2. After generating your user needs post-its, organize them based on how your users and audiences would think about them. Arrange them into buckets and categories that would fit with your users’ understanding of how these needs fit together and relate to each other. Within larger categories, create subcategories and sort the user needs post-its into these more refined categories. 
  3. Next, write out all the major pieces of content on your website on post-its (preferably using a different color than your user needs). It will help if you’ve already completed a content inventory and audit of your website. Once you have all the existing content written out, match your existing website content to your user needs. Now you can identify gaps: are there user needs that are not being met by existing content? Is there content that is not meeting an actual user need that may be unnecessary? Make note of these gaps and plan to create, revise, or delete content based on this step. 
  4. Using these affinity buckets with content matched to user needs, arrange them to create a sitemap/structure of the site. Remember that users will get overwhelmed if your navigation has too many options and try to consolidate them in a way that fits your users’ needs. If you notice there may be connections between content in different affinity groups, you can connect these with a dotted line, which serves as an indication that you should include a link within the content of these pages to help users navigate between them. Compare this to your existing content and site navigation to see if there is anything you may have missed. You should be judicious in evaluating whether the things they missed were missed because they’re not actually needed. 
  5. Finalize the menu labels (i.e. how these pages will appear in the navigation) and page titles. Compare your existing labels to the way that you described your users’ needs. You should keep in mind the particular language and nomenclature your users are familiar with and avoid naming based on potentially obscure internal vocabulary. See the following section for more information on this topic. 

As you’re working through the affinity mapping exercise, you should keep these tips and best practices in mind, which are borrowed largely from the web team at Carnegie Mellon University

  • Avoid information overload: Less is more! Try to consolidate your navigation items as much as possible. For instance, you may not need both a Contact Us page and a Visit Us page. Because most people associate an address with contact information, you can combine these pages into one page that contains both pieces of information. Information overload can set in when people have to look at more than four to six navigation items.
  • Know your audience: The most common mistake people make is that they organize their content according to their internal administration rather than according to how their users will be looking for it. Always put yourself in the shoes of your users and use keywords and terms that your audience would most likely search on, such as “Calendar” or “Contact Information” or “Fees.”
  • Use words that are intuitive, descriptive and easily scannable. For example, instead of a generic label such as “Programs Offered,” a more specific label such as “Undergraduate Degree” would better serve your audience.
  • Use phrases that translate into actions (e.g., Apply Now, Schedule a Meeting, Request Help), since most people use websites to perform actions. This will also help you avoid simply using your audiences as navigation items (Students, Faculty, Parents, etc.). While this works in some instances, there is often overlap in both how audiences identify and the content provided to audiences, and you do not want to have to update content in multiple places. (Nielsen Norman Group, Audience-Based Navigation: 5 Reasons to Avoid It).
  • Use editorial consistency regarding labels and naming; if you choose to use actions as labels (e.g., Apply Now), be consistent and stick with actions for that navigation area.

Resources for further reading

Workshop recording