While working on website information architecture projects, clients often ask something along the lines of:

  • Is audience based navigation a good idea?
  • Should we do audience based navigation?
  • Does audience based navigation make sense for us?

On the surface, audience based navigation seems to make sense. In user-centred design, we design for the user. If we group information based on the different users we’ve identified, then the user will know where to look on the website. In my early days, I did once try my hand at audience based navigation and quickly learned a few things (and felt an immense amount of frustration).

What is audience based navigation?

Audience based navigation is a way of grouping pages by the type of user. You try to figure out which pages and topics are relevant to the specific user group or audience, then group all these pages together and label the group. Many university websites use this approach with labels like “Prospective Students”, “Current Students”, and “Faculty”. Normally when we talk about audience based navigation, we are talking about grouping by audience at the top level of the site structure, or in the global navigation.

Reason 1: Required: Deep knowledge of the user

When we want to group pages by user types or audience, we need a really deep knowledge of the topics or information they need and the language they use. Many times on website redesign projects, there is time for persona development and user research, but there isn’t time to explore all the information needs, all the topics of interest, and the exact language that the user group might use. Creating audience groupings based on incomplete information inherently means that the audience groupings are inaccurate.

Language also has an impact. The UK.GOV team has done research on audience groupings and found in ‘Hey, you there’: the trouble with audience-based navigation:

“…Although these terms worked well for users whose mental models fitted the language we were using, they were not well understood by everyone.”

Sometimes we think that everyone uses the same terms to talk about the same things. However, the more research we do, the more we learn that people use all different kinds of words to describe the same thing.

Reason 2: Applicable content isn’t available

In the past, when I’ve arrived on a website with audience based navigation, I think, “If I pick this option, am I missing out on information?” Nielsen Norman writes in Audience-Based Navigation: 5 Reasons to Avoid It:

“When users feel stuck in one group, they wonder what other groups get that they don’t. Particularly in e-commerce or B2B contexts, users want to know if other audience groups have access to better options or prices.”

By asking users to narrow themselves into one category, their confidence in the displayed information is lower and forces them to do even more work if they don’t find the information they’re looking for. Instead of coming to the conclusion that the content isn’t on the site, they also have to click through the other audience groupings to ensure that the content isn’t there.

Reason 3: Content is available everywhere

Another problem with audience based navigation is that if content is applicable to more than one audience or user group, the content has to be listed in those multiple areas. The site navigation can become overloaded. While we might have 4 identified audiences, if we have to provide links to the same pages within those 4 audience groupings, then the groupings themselves have a large number of links.

On top of this, if content needs to be slightly different for different audiences (perhaps they use different terms for the same thing), then this can mean having the same content twice. We are no longer re-using content, but duplicating content. Maintenance on this content can be a nightmare, especially if the content editors aren’t aware of all the places this content is listed.

Conclusion

Audience based navigation can be full of difficulties. As an alternative, task-based or topic-based navigation can appeal to a broader group of users.

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