In the modern information age, we’re all experiencing information, or cognitive overload. The sheer volume of information we’re exposed to and the frequency with which it arises can be an issue, but researchers tend to agree that it’s not the volume of information; it’s how it’s organized that’s the problem.
One of the biggest mistakes we see people make when it comes to their websites is not prioritizing information architecture. While the design aspects of a website are fun, glamorous, and ultimately vital to the success of your site, it’s important that you don’t jump straight to the design and forgo the important process of building a solid information architecture and understanding the purpose behind your site and its content.
Every successful project begins with a Discovery phase. This is the part of the project that includes research, analysis, exploration and planning. The goal here is to grasp the bigger picture, define business goals, establish project scope, acknowledge constraints and define success.
Unfortunately, this phase is often overlooked so as to save time and/or money. Without the discovery process, you risk consequences such as overspend later on in the production phase or misguided development. Not all development agencies use a Discovery phase, but they should. Beyond projects with very simple objectives, a designer or developer couldn’t possibly understand your business well enough to give accurate estimates without a detailed analysis. Most project managers would agree that if the requirements are identified early on in the project cycle, this would result in reducing the project schedule and/or budget. It also results in project deliverables suitably meeting the business user and technology requirements. Reworking and fixing errors adds unnecessary time, cost and avoidable headache to your project.
One option is to go forward with in-house discovery. Think about it: it’s already your job to think about how you can best serve your users. You probably know the subject matter better than anyone else and you already have some of the research you would need on hand. But, proceed with caution. Be mindful of your assumptions and internal bias. This process takes time and effort and it can be frustrating to admit failures to make the improvements necessary for success. In-house discovery is as effective as the people conducting it. Lack of discovery experience or blind spots in a team’s collective knowledge will limit the value of the process and its outcomes.
Another option is to work with an agency that can assist you with the discovery process. Our process begins with a discovery phase to fully articulate the goals, constraints and measures of success for your project. We set out to bring clarity to your vision and concept. We meet with you and your key stakeholders to ensure that project goals and stakeholder expectations are fully aligned and that all potential opportunities are explored. We work together to develop real understandings of what achievements are expected in terms of outputs and outcomes.
The goal is to develop a blueprint or detailed plan that reduces the risks of your project. At the end of the discovery engagement, you’ll walk away with the following deliverables to inform the production process:
Revised Information Architecture
This is how the content should be organized, classified and expanded/reduced to match the goals and stakeholder expectations.
This is how the content should be arranged on a webpage to let the target user access the most relevant information with the least amount of effort, letting the user navigate your site naturally. Wireframes give you a glimpse of how visitors will interact with your site. At this stage, we focus exclusively on the user experience and functionality of your site.
Detailed Project Requirements
The project requirements document is the foundation for all subsequent project deliverables, describing what inputs and outputs are associated with each process function. The requirements document also includes the system, performance, integration and interface requirements for your website project.
Launching your website project with a discovery phase is one of the most important things you can do to set them up for success. Following discovery best practices would result in reducing project costs, shortening the development cycle, enhancing team productivity and most importantly, a better website.
For the past four months we’ve been working at Sanmita as marketing interns. In the second half of our internship, we focused exclusively on building Sanmita’s sister brand, DrupalAnswers. Over the course of our internship we have gained experience in market research, higher education website audits, video marketing, the creation of social media and blog posts, and content curation.
We also learned how to create an integrated content strategy across different platforms. Throughout the entire experience, we worked as a team to complete tasks and brainstorm strategy, which we believe led us to produce even greater results than we would have alone.
When we started this internship we had basic understanding of what exactly web development involves. We understood there were multiple facets to the development process but our grasp of the topic was limited to design and the aesthetic aspect of a site. Throughout our internship, we gained a fuller understanding of what truly encompasses web development.
We now know the importance of the discovery process and why research is a vital part of a website’s strategy and creation. For instance, conducting proper research influences the development of information architecture, which plays a major role in determining the success and organization of a site. As we completed audits of college websites, we also learned several other aspects that contribute to a site’s success, including accessibility, page speed, mobile-friendliness, and how easy it is to navigate through the website’s content. One of our favorite quotes found during our research sums up what we learned perfectly:
“Pretty things can be useless, and ugly things can be useful. Beauty and quality are not always related.” ― Abby Covert, How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody
Essentially, good design rests upon a solid foundation.
Since our company focuses on higher education institutions, we spent a lot of time researching best practices for mission critical sites. Without a doubt, we agree that Drupal is the best CMS for higher education. Drupal is powerful, flexible, and is built to handle the complexity of a higher education site– even the White House chooses Drupal as their go-to CMS. As we’ve learned, Drupal is the best option when stability and scalability are vital to the project, or if it requires close attention to detail and unique customization. An added benefit of Drupal is that most of their extensions and ways to customize the site are free of charge – perfect for higher ed institutions that might be working on a tight budget.
Now with just a week left in our internship, we feel that we have gained experiences that we can apply in the future. One of our favorite parts of the internship was having the opportunity to work on the company’s integrated online marketing strategy. We strategized and executed ways to drive traffic to the website and blog posts through social media, demonstrating the importance of consistent messaging across all platforms. Another aspect of this internship that we were thankful for was being able to see the full lifecycle of the projects we worked on. We were involved in each step of the way, from start to finish. This was a unique experience that we have not received elsewhere. Overall, the skills and experiences we have had working at Sanmita are invaluable to us and will affect the way we will grow as marketers.
The goal of a content audit is to understand the current state of your website content, i.e. what content is relevant, what can be merged with other content and what can be safely removed. You can then analyze the information and organize the content based upon your users feedback, industry trends and site analytics. Theoretically, it seems a very simple process, but in practice, conducting a site audit can be a messy exercise if you don’t have a plan in place. Some reasons to conduct content audits include:
- You manage a large number of products (eCommerce sites like REI)
- You publish and manage a lot of content (content aggregators and news sites like Reuters)
- You have complex service offerings requiring a lot of supporting content (large association sites, higher education sites like Cornell, government sites like The White House)
- Your site is information-oriented, diverse, and you offer a lot of long-form web copy
- Your site is small without too much content (small businesses, restaurants)
- You have fewer pages and focused content
- Your site is dedicated to a singular function, such as a tool or online calculator
Information Architecture, or IA, is one of those vague-sounding terms which can seem to spiral off into abstraction when you read about it. Even a simple definition can sound pretty yawn-worthy:
“Information architecture is a combination of organizing a site’s content into categories and creating an interface to support those categories*”
First of all, let’s dispel the myth that IA is some kind of techy mumbo jumbo that’s expressed only via convoluted flow charts.