When first starting on projects, clients normally tell me that they want to improve the information architecture of their website or intranet because users can’t find information. I hear things like:
“We get a lot of calls from people asking for information that’s already on our website. Our website is just too hard for people to use.”
I will also here something like:
“We know that people can’t find information on the site, but we don’t know why.”
Maybe the website isn’t well organized. Maybe users don’t take the time to look through the website. Maybe users have had bad experiences in the past and can’t be bothered to look on the website.
Rest assured there are you can improve content findability with better website information architecture.
What is findability?
On page 4 of Morville’s Ambient Findability, findability is defined as “a) the quality of being locatable or navigable; b) the degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate; c) the degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval.”
What does that really mean for us? It means that a website or intranet has been set up according to how users expect to find information. Making something easy to discover depends on who is doing the discovering and what they are looking for. You could ask someone completely unfamiliar with makeup start looking for “primer” on a makeup website, but if this person doesn’t use makeup, why would they ever look for primer? However, if you asked someone reasonably familiar with makeup and makeup trends to look for primer and if it was hard for her/him to find it, then you’ve got a problem!
How can findability be improved?
There are a number of ways in which findability can be improved. Three of my favourites include: expert reviews, task testing, and user testing.
When doing an expert review of a website, an information architect can look at a number of things:
- The page structure of the site
- The taxonomy or tags used on the site
- The on-site search configuration
- The search results page layout
- The layout of the site
All of these things contribute to whether content is findable or not. If the physical page structure of the site is good but users can’t understand the layout of the pages once they get to the right section, then the findability will suffer.
Also, your site may have a search box, but the search results can be hard to interpret (I’ve often see this be the case). Many times I hear that people want a “plug and play” search box on their site and want it to work “just like Google.” It’s important to keep in mind that Google puts a LOT of effort into its search. They don’t set-it-and-forget-it!
From an expert review, you’ll have best practice steps to take to improve your site’s IA.
Task testing is a tool to review your website information architecture. Essentially, you come up with some task-based questions for your site and let people browse through the structure to find the answer. For example, say you had a website dedicated to educating people about dog training. You might ask, “Your dog tears up blankets while you’re away at work. Where would you find information to prevent this behaviour?” The answer could be “Crate training” or “Curbing unwanted dog behaviours” but you know it’s hard for people to find.
Set up 10 questions like this in a usability testing tool like Treejack and collect results. It will tell you which areas of your website do or don’t have problems. Careful! You need to write the questions well enough so as not to lead people to the answer.
From task testing, you’ll know exactly where people are looking for the answer and you’ll be able to adjust your site structure to best suit these expectations.
This is the real meat and guts of improving website information architecture and content findability. It’s requires the most money and planning. It’s the most human resource and coordination intensive. There’s a huge benefit to user testing: it gives you insights to your findability problems and your users.
During user testing, you’re able to ask people to explore the website, ask them questions about what they’re doing, and see how they’re actually using it (as opposed to how you imagined). On top of this, you can take the time to get more insight into why they’re using the website, how it fits into their lives, what kind of terminology they use (vs the jargon your company might use).
With proper planning and objectives, user testing can take you a long way.
From user testing, you’ll be able to make any tweaks to how your site functions and to the structure of it. Plus you’ll have additional research to create or remove content with confidence.
Many websites struggle with their findability and information architectures. However, there are concrete ways to improve the site: expert reviews, task testing, and user testing. By using these techniques, you’ll be able to make specific, measurable improvements to your content findability.