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How To Create An Information Architecture That Is Easy To Use

When creating the information architecture of a website, users are often overlooked in favor of internal politics and organizational thinking. On larger websites, each departmental silo wants its own section of the site, and they often fight to ensure their section is featured in the main navigation. Even small sites suffer from problems with information architecture as business owners focus more on what they want to say rather than what users want to know.

In most cases, stakeholders are the worst people to decide on the information architecture, so I want to share an alternative process. However, before we can implement this process, we need to explain why our stakeholders should not be defining the site structure. To do that, we need to teach them about mental models.

Understanding And Explaining Mental Models #

Mental models are used to explain how we organize pretty much anything in our world. For example, most of us would organize the following words into a group that we would probably refer to as “fruits”:

  • Apple,
  • Pear,
  • Banana,
  • Melon,
  • Orange.

However, not all of us see the world in the same way. For example, if you are an expert in fruits, you would probably include tomatoes in this list. But, of course, most of us would probably associate tomatoes more with salads than we do fruits.

Lots of things can influence our mental models from previous experience to culture. However, one of the most significant influencing factors is our level of experience in the subject matter.

As we become more knowledgeable in a particular subject, our mental model diverges from the rest of the population. For example, an expert in birds will tell you that there is no such thing as a seagull, yet most of us would think otherwise.

It is precisely this issue of experts having a different mental model from the rest of us that means stakeholders are the worst people to be making decisions about a site’s information architecture. After all, most stakeholders are experts in their products or services and think about them differently from most people visiting the website.

This issue makes them bad at organizing content and can undermine the content itself.

Creating Relevant Content #

Poor content choices can significantly impact how effective your information architecture is. Hence, creating an information architecture must begin by defining the content that needs to appear on the website.

Organizations typically make two common mistakes when deciding on the content for their website. First, many mindlessly migrate the content from their old website to the new one. They fail to ask whether this content is relevant.

However, the second and more significant issue is that stakeholders start from the wrong premise when creating content. They start by asking themselves, “what do we want to say” rather than “what does our audience want to know?

The result of this wrong starting point is that any information architecture will fail because users won’t find answers to their questions. That is because the content doesn’t exist on the website.

The starting point for any information architecture project should not be to define what the organization wants to say, but what questions, objections, and tasks the user has in their mind as they come to the website. You can then build the site’s content and, by extension, the information architecture around these:

  • Questions
    They can range from general questions such as “what is this site about” or “how can this site help me” to more specific questions about the products or services the site provides.
  • Objections
    They are the reasons that users might not take action. For example, if your call to action is to sign up for a newsletter, users might have concerns about spam, privacy, or how easy it will be to unsubscribe. If you don’t address these objections, people will not act.
  • Tasks
    They relate to actions the user might want to take on the website. These might include booking an event, signing up for a newsletter, or contacting the organization behind the website.

On an e-commerce site, this would include finding a product, adding it to the cart, checking out, and managing the order.

You should use other elements such as social proof, or the companies value proposition to answer these questions and objections. However, the information architecture itself needs to be built around the user’s needs.

So, before we begin organizing content, we first need to gather a list of questions, objections and tasks. Now, depending on the breadth of what your organization does, this can turn into a huge list. But, that is okay, as our next step will be to identify which questions, objections, and tasks matter most to users.

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