Web sites represent a unique form of information delivery. Unlike print media, such as newspapers and books, web sites allow the reader to progress through the information in a non linear fashion. For this to work effectively one needs to organise the content carefully and in a logical manner. The bigger the web site the more important this becomes.
Lately we've noticed many large companies with large web sites have completely failed to organise their information properly and as a result their web sites are very difficult to navigate. Finding items of interest is a time-consuming hunt, often burrowing deep within the site to some obscure page.
Judicious use of hierarchy trees
There are several solutions to this problem. The best one involves multiple shallow tree structures. The deeper the hierarchy tree the more difficult it is to find information and the more likely a user will become lost or give up. Information becomes unnecessarily compartmentalised and difficult to find.
There is an e-commerce web site run by one of the biggest computer retailers in the world, where they have drawn a distinction between home computers, small business computers, and large business computers. When a home user goes to the home user section of the web site, they will not find any ultra portable laptops. This is not because the company does not sell them. It is because the ultra portables have been located in the business sections deep within the tree structure. If the home user does not think to traverse the business branches (and why would they ?), they will never find the ultra portables and obviously, will never buy one.
Having lots of shallow trees can result in a much more accessible web site. Lets define a shallow tree as being any tree which is no more than three levels deep.
Whenever possible we try to use a tree no deeper than three levels. Navigating within such a simple structure you to always know where you are and it is almost impossible to get lost. Finding items of interest is an extremely quick process.
Leaving a trail of bread crumbs
On occasion, however, one needs to go deeper than three levels and in order to easily negotiate such a tree it is important to know where you are right now. One solution is to use what's known as bread crumbs. Bread crumbs are the trail of links which you have clicked through in order to arrive where you are. The following is an example of a bread crumb for a tree six levels deep:
Products > Electrical > Televisions > Sony > Trinitron
This kind of navigational aid is becoming more and more widely used as sites become more complex and trees become deeper.
On our e-commerce web sites our trees are typically two levels deep. This means that any given items is no more than two clicks away from any other item anywhere on the web site. Needless to say, customers are able to find items on our web sites with unparalleled ease.
Another solution to navigating a deep tree structure is the addition of a search facility. A user goes to a search page, types in a query and a list of matches appears. This can work very well but is subject to its own problems.
Misspellings by the user can result in items that actually exist not being found, leading the user to think (incorrectly) that you don't carry that item and thereby losing a potential sale. This is not to say that Internet users can't type or are illiterate. Something as simple as spelling the word colour can result in erroneous results, (in America, colour is spelt 'color').
Another problem with search facilities is relevance. If you have hundreds of candles for sale and a user types in 'Red' they will get a bombardment of hits for the word Red, but very few will have anything to do with Candles. The user would have to hunt through a long list of irrelevant hits, or resubmit the query with more specific criteria. Either way this is a nuisance to them and it would be far more user friendly if the information were organised effectively to begin with, so they don't need a search facility.
The most overlooked disadvantage of search facilities is that the user no longer needs to browse through your product range to find what they are looking for. If the search works well, they go straight to the item they came for and leave the shop without having seen any of your other products - some of which may have suited them better.
Shallow tree structures, which customers can browse through on their way to a specific product, allows them to be more fully exposed to the range of items you have to offer. This can mean more sales and a more satisfied customer.
Writing web content
Writing content for a website and can be very different to writing for other mediums. It has great versatility and a well thought out structure can make the site a much more effective communication tool. Cross linking within the site can be a powerful mechanism for connecting related areas of information, making it easier for people to find what they are looking for at exactly the moment when they need it, avoiding duplication, and making long-term maintenance of the website more practical (if information is likely to need to be updated due to changes in legislation, personel, dates, contact details, etc, its best if it's all in one place).
The site map
If you are getting ready to build your first web site have a think about how you see the site when it's finished. Try to visualise it in your mind and ask these questions:
- How will it look?
- How will you navigate through it?
- How do the different pieces of information relate to each other?
Spend five minutes mind mapping the topics, and you may discover the website structure appearing before you. This will be the foundation of the site map. It is very important to have a basic idea of the site map early in the project's development as everything else will flow from there.
There is a lot to consider when organising the information to appear on a web site, and there are many options available to the web designer. The primary consideration should always be "How can I make it easier for my clients to access my products and information?". The answer to this question can affect not just the success of your web site but the success of your entire business enterprise.
We look forward to discussing your needs further. You may contact us here to learn more or arrange a face to face meeting.
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