Building A Value Added Website: Thinking Like An Architect
This article is part three in a series on building a website for your business. To start from the beginning, click here.
You have a budget, and you have the tools, but before you can start building your website, you’re going to want a plan. Not just a list of features you want to include or topics you want to address, but a detailed outline of exactly what each page of your website will cover, and how they’ll connect to each other. This sort of outline is known as a website's information architecture, the structured design of how content is labeled and organized to promote usability and findability.
Planning the informational architecture early in the design process is critical. It acts as the backbone for your site’s content and is key to make it easy for customers to smoothly navigate your site.
Design Your Website’s Architecture In 4 Steps
To plan your site’s architecture, we strongly recommend you use a method known as card sorting. This is a common strategy user experience engineers use to determine how their users label and categorize topics and ideas. Participants are given a deck of cards labeled with various subject matter and told to group them in any way that makes sense to them.
User Experience engineers can then use that data to organize the subject matter in a way that their participants have proven to make sense. While this exercise might seem redundant if you already have an idea of how you want to organize your site, it’s good to confirm it with hard data. The many ways people categorize data will surprise you.
There are four steps to design, perform, and analyze a card sort. Let’s go through them below:
Step One: Create the Cards
There can be no card sort without cards to sort. These are physical or digital assets labeled with subject matter of your choosing.
First, make a list of tasks or topics someone would find or do on your site. Examples include:
Search the site
Submit a contact form
How many cards you create depends on how big your site will be but, in general, it’s good to aim for a number between 30 to 50 tasks. Any less will make it difficult to see trends after the sort, and any more may make it hard for your participant to keep track of each topic. One caveat of card sorts is the cards themselves can easily influence how they’re sorted. But, there are ways to avoid this.
First, it’s important to ensure the level of detail for each card is consistent. For instance, if you’re making a pet adoption site, having cards for "pets," "cats," and "dalmatians" will be confusing. Instead, opt for "cats," "fish," and "dogs" (or if you want to be more detailed "maine coon," "poodle," "dalmatian.") The level of detail you should aim for will depend on how many topics your site will cover as you want to aim for that 30-50 mark.
Second, avoid overusing terms, or suggestive phrases. If you use certain words over and over, for example: "information about our cats", "information about our staff", you may accidentally influence your participant to group these two cards together based on the similarity of their terms, rather than the subject matter.
Once you have your list written down, it’s time to create the actual cards. You can use any material on hand to make them, whether it’s index cards, paper, or sticky notes. These days there’s even software that can create the cards digitally, such as OptimalSort, UserZoom, or UXtweak, letting you perform the card sort completely online. On the front of the card, write down the topic. On the back, give the card a number. This will act as the cards ID and allow for easier analysis later.
Step Two: Find Your Players
While it's helpful to sort the cards yourself or with coworkers, to be most effective, you’ll want to collect data from an end user. After all, you’re building your site for them, not yourself. Ideally you can ask current clients or potential customers, but friends and family who aren’t involved with your work can make for good participants too. Whether you do these sorts individually or in a group, you’ll want to test multiple people. More data is always better. If you have the budget, you can even hire analytics and user experience companies to do this research for you.
If you plan on testing current or potential customers, be sure to be professional. Practice in advance to ensure the session will run smoothly, be clear about your schedule and offer gratuity such as a gift card for their time.
Step Three: Sorting Sessions
The actual sorting session should only take 15 minutes. Shuffle your deck of cards and give them to the participant with the instructions to group them however it makes sense. Encourage them to explain their process or what they’re thinking, but try not to talk much or otherwise influence their sort. You’re here to observe and learn.
When they’ve finished grouping their cards, ask them to split up any particularly large (10+) groups, or combine any groups of two. Finally give them blank cards and ask them to label each group.
To make the most of the card sort, interview the participant after they’ve completed the sort. Record notes for this interview, as well as other observations you’ve made during the card sort. Some good questions to ask include:
Were any cards that were difficult to sort? Why?
Did you feel there were any cards missing?
Did any of these cards out of place?
Do you think any of these cards could belong in more than one group?
As said earlier, you can perform card sort exercises individually, or in a group. Both these methods have their own advantages. Individual sessions allow you to focus specifically on that participant, and ensure you’re getting their uninfluenced thoughts and ideas. Group sessions, encourage conversations between the participants, giving you additional insights and ideas that participants might not think to share during individual sessions. Once finished, record the sort with a photo (where you can see all the cards and labels), or in a spreadsheet diagram such as the example below.
Step Four: Analyze, Translate, and Adjust
Once you have all your data points, lay out your notes and records so you can see everything at once. Look for patterns and trends: Are there any cards a lot of people were having trouble with? Are there any cards multiple people thought belonged in multiple groups? Do these results confirm or deny how you were planning to lay out your site?
Successful card sorts should give you some ideas for page content and navigational structure. For instance, each grouping of cards may be a page on your website, and each label the link you’d find on a navigation menu.
However, this translation might not be one to one. For instance, a "contact us" page is crucial for every small business website to have, regardless of the card sort results. Also remember, websites can have the same information in multiple locations. If certain cards consistently wound up in different groups, you may want to simply repeat that information. Contact information is a good example of this as it is often found in a footer or header, an about us page, as well as a contact us page.
You should also consider how many links are in your navigation menu. In general, you’ll want to keep it limited to seven or less. If you have more pages than this, you may want to combine any small, similar groups into one page, or consider using a drop-down menu, in which you can group similar pages under one unifying label. This may be a good strategy if you have lots of products or services listed on your site.
Finally, it is perfectly OK if your site’s architecture winds up looking similar to other sites. Paradigms and cliches exist for a reason and predictability and consistency is a value in business web design. You’ll get a chance to diversify your content in other ways later on.
Conclusion and Next Steps
With the conclusion of your card sort, you should have a detailed and data proven outline for your site. Hold onto this as it will make our next step: Creating content, much, much, easier.
In the meantime, feel free to contact us with any questions, or comments about card sorting or informational architecture. We’d love to hear what you have to say.