One of the great tropes of modern marketing is a tendency for the industry to get distracted by shiny new things, sometimes at the expense of sound strategic thinking.
The hype around some digital technologies can be exactly that – it’s what Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson so often highlights: TV is not dead, machine learning is some way off, Blockchain isn’t ‘key’, consumers don’t crave engagement with your brand.
Artificial intelligence, personalisation, voice user interfaces and chatbots are all being hyped right now. And fair enough, they are really interesting and potentially powerful.
But if marketers want to get ahead of their competition, they might be wiser keeping a firm hand on the tiller and sticking to the guiding principles not just of marketing, but of web and content design, too.
Information architecture (IA) may not be in vogue like it was a decade ago, when website design was maturing rapidly, but it arguably remains as crucial. As much as people are becoming accustomed to navigating websites and apps, they are also getting lazier.
Many mobile experiences, particularly social media, consist of scrolling through a feed in a state of lazy and delightful discovery. Googling something and selecting the top result is habit, as is quickly searching Amazon and using one-click purchase. Voice interfaces, however sketchy, aim to ultimately remove cognitive load from the user.
As much as people are becoming accustomed to navigating websites and apps, they are also getting lazier.
All of this means that when people come to your website, can you really trust them to find the right piece of content from all of that stuff you dutifully uploaded? If they are a long-term customer in browsing mode and they know your website, then perhaps they’ll have their bearings. Otherwise, you had better make sure your website’s architecture meets your most important user needs.
Not to labour the point, but if we admit that personalised marketing at scale (enabled by artificial intelligence) is still a decade away at least, then information architecture remains vital. To put it another way, until we can predict what people want, we have to enable them to find it themselves.
What is information architecture and how can it go wrong?
Wikipedia defines IA as “the art and science of organising and labelling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability”.
There are many mistakes to be made with IA. For some specific examples, you can do worse than starting with 10 named by the Nielsen Norman Group – the list includes poor labelling of menu options, too many types of navigation, inconsistent navigation and polyhierarchy (items showing up in multiple places).
The more revealing question to ask, though, is ‘why are marketers getting IA wrong?’. Econsultancy trainer Paul Boag points to a couple of common reasons that will not come as a surprise to the average marketer.
“Often [IA] turns into a political battleground between rival departments each seeking to have their area of responsibility highlighted at the highest level of the site. Then, of course, there is the tendency for organisations to structure their information architecture around departmental silos. After all, this makes it easier to divide up the site between these related departments.”
Another way that IA can be compromised is by the content management systems available to marketers and content managers. Systems such as WordPress have been a godsend to many marketers, as they have enabled web content management without lengthy IT involvement.
However, many of these implementations use limited templates that don’t allow the marketer much flexibility. Content can be created quickly, but not necessarily in the most appropriate form.
Pete Czech, CEO at digital agency New Possibilities Group, writes that “because templates are so inflexible, your content stops being content. It starts becoming as assemblage of items that create a page. When content stops being something you can organise, make sortable and searchable, you have shot yourself in the foot”.
Modular systems such as Drupal go some way to solving these problems, but having a marketing team empowered by a CMS and freed from development cycles may still be a double-edged sword. Without due care, the end result may be a bloated website with poor IA.
How to get information architecture right
At the heart, working on your IA is a simple process. It begins with finding out what tasks users are trying to achieve, assigning relative levels of importance and placing them within a hierarchy. Techniques such as ‘top task analysis’, ‘card sorting’ and ‘tree testing’ may help.
The theory is not rocket science but the practice contains many subtleties. The BBC’s creative director for user experience architecture Dan Ramsden describes the three types of furniture in web design as ‘interactions’ (involving movement through a product, eg a checkout), ‘menus’ and ‘content’.
How this furniture is arranged depends on the mode of navigation of your users. Dan describes these modes as ‘motivated movement’, ‘delightful discovery’, ‘foggy finding’ and ‘not necessarily navigation’ (eg consuming content).
IA goes hand-in-hand with content design, and as such the Government Digital Service’s guide to content design is a fantastic resource. It’s all about identifying user needs.
What you will notice on the gov.uk website is that information density is never overwhelming. Navigation within a topic is often achieved with the right level of text linking and a clear list of contents. Breadcrumbs help to orient the user, and there’s a prominent search function if all else fails.
The content itself is clear, accessible and easy to understand. Once the user decides to use a service (such as renewing a passport) there are clear calls to action (in green) which say ‘start now’, moving the user from content to interaction.
Although I’m not an expert on this stuff, more and more I admire websites which simply feel easy to use, and chances are that feeling is down to a web team’s unyielding dedication to IA and content design.
So, until language user interfaces can be spoken to like humans, rather than like animals that can act on commands, I would advise marketers to go back to the basics of IA and make their websites truly a joy to navigate.
Ben Davis is editor at Marketing Week’s sister title Econsultancy.