Building a website information architecture (IA) from scratch is hard. It takes a lot of thought and vision. Not only is it of paramount importance to understand the purpose of the website very well, but also its limitations too (don’t throw in a shopping cart if we’re not building e-commerce pages, ya hooligan). And on top of all of that, the IA must be creatively molded into something that not only works on a practical level and makes senses, but also powerfully projects a message. And this all must be accomplished using just a couple of words for each item.
“The IA must be creatively molded into something that not only works on a practical level and makes senses, but also powerfully projects a message.”
How we built the IA for a recent client
Recently I had the chance to work on a non-profit’s website redesign. This particular non-profit offered a few different services, but their primary focus is to offer training to their target users, first responders.
First responders in our communities – the police officers, EMTs, fire fighters, and other service men and women – are the first on the scene in any trauma or disaster. Regardless of whether the situation is a twisted ankle at a soccer game, a family in dire need of immediate evacuation in a burning home, or a city drowning in the next Katrina, first responders are there. Time and time again, these people see pain, hurt, and death. And the worst part is, they can’t even stop for a second to process and deal with each horror they face – it’s their job to remain calm, cool and collected, always. So naturally, they often just shove their emotions deep into their gut and try not to think about them too often.
The purpose of our redesigned website is simple: provide immediate access to training programs, emergency services, and helpful resources that give first responders the tools they need to identify, cope with, and overcome traumatic events in their life.
This website will serve users who may be on the brink of a psychological meltdown, or even worse, suicide. As the C2 team began to strategize for the site, we realized pretty quickly the significance of “immediate”. It became absolutely imperative to provide these first responders with the information they need next-to-instantly. We are quite literally dealing with life and death.
So the question became: “What is the most immediate way to get first responders to the place they need to be on this website?”
Sound familiar? Isn’t that always the goal when building an IA? Getting users to where they need to be as efficiently as possible?
There are a two primary forms of website IA. Both are categorical, but each will elicit an entirely different reaction from the user. We evaluated both types for our client and eventually chose what we knew was the best option for them:
- Keyword-driven IA – the most commonly used approach to developing an IA. It is heavily based on categories.
- How to build it: Organize all of the pages into categories that make sense, then title that category with a keyword or two, and use that title as the primary level of the IA.
- How users feel about it: Humans appreciate order, and generally have an easy time understanding ordered lists. That is why this approach is generally accepted on the web. Users understand that in a well-formed keyword-driven IA, items underneath a category title will relate to the category title above.
- How Google feels about it: Google loves keywords, and keywords love Google. Another strength of this approach is that it appeals to logic over emotion. Google has an easy time understanding logic, so this approach ranks high on the “SEO friendly” charts.
- Call to action IA – a less commonly used approach to developing an IA, but still easily found if you keep your eyes open. It is heavily based on action words.
- How to build it: Organize all of the pages into categories that make sense, then title the category with an action phrase or word that aligns with the actions your site intends to inspire.
- How users feel about it: Users will identify with items in a well-formed call to action IA. They will resonate with one of the calls to action and proceed to drill down in that area, because the IA has successfully identified the action they intended to take once arriving on the site.
- How Google feels about it: The CEO at Google would tell you that the company is very in touch with humans and emotions and all of that mushy stuff. The truth of the matter is that Google.com has a little harder time with emotionally charged text. They say the last thing you pick up when learning a new language is sarcasm (because sarcasm is found in the emotional inflections of a statement) – needless to say, Google hasn’t quite learned the human language well enough to pick up on sarcasm or other emotionally charged text. This approach, while powerful to humans, gets a low rating for SEO-friendliness.
See how the "categorical" structures of both IAs are the same? Information falls into the same buckets regardless of the naming conventions used in the top level. However, notice that the user’s perception of the IA is completely different depending on the approach.
Keyword-driven IA is the Client’s Choice
Our client ended up choosing the keyword-driven approach for a few reasons:
- It’s easy to understand – especially to their users (who are typically more logical and not tech savvy). Straightforward is best.
- It’s strong in the SEO category.
- This approach was generally preferred by most of the people on the team.
Building a Super IA: Action Oriented and Keyword Rich
With a happy client, the story may seem like it’s over. But I want to take this one step further. I love the human aspect of the call to action approach, but I also understand its inherent SEO weaknesses. Is there a way to get the best of both worlds?
Can both ideas be merged into one super-IA that is emotionally powerful and search engine optimal? Check out my untested concept IA below. What do you think?