When creating a website, the way information is organized within the site is one of the most crucial aspects in the design process. If a good plan for the organization of information is not made early on, the success of the website can suffer. In this post, I will outline a few issues with the information architecture of the Department of Writing Studies website using guidelines from the text Web Style Guide.
A big part of information architecture includes how the content is formatted on the page. Despite the temptation many web designers may feel to imitate the printed page, it is a mistake to do so. Users visiting a site do not have time to read an entire page; instead, they skim headlines to find information they want.
Pages are more useful when divided into sections. The homepage of the Department of Writing Studies site has a letter of greeting written by the department chair, but this format is not useful for most users. The creators of the site should evaluate this text to determine the most important information in it and then separate it out into multiple sections with headings that stand out.
Themes for Organization
Users need to know immediately what kind of information is on a page. One way to communicate this information is by the use of themes. For example, a product page on a bookstore website would benefit from a "Category" theme, dividing books into different categories. A newspaper website would benefit from a "Time Line" theme, with the most recent news at the top of a page and earlier news below it.
The "Undergraduate" page on the site starts out with a description of one of the majors offered by the department, but is then followed by news. These two pieces of information are incongruous and do not belong on the same page. Since the "Undergraduate" page is the main page for all of the undergraduate programs and services, it should perhaps focus on the news section since there is already a dedicated "Major" page.
Just as many people use landmarks in real life to orient themselves in a city, web users need markers to tell them where they are on a website. After all, users may end up on a page deep within the site through a search engine. These users need landmarks to let them know where they are within the site and where they are in relation to the homepage.
The Department of Writing Studies site makes use of such landmarks, but it could be improved. A good example of landmarks is that each page uses titles that match the names of the links listed in the left-hand navigation bar. Additionally, when users click on the link to a section (such as "Undergraduate" or "People"), a corresponding set of tabs for that section open up beneath its title in the navigation bar.
However, when a user is visiting a particular section, that section's name should become highlighted in the navigation bar. Currently, if a user clicks on "Undergraduate", they can see the tabs that opened up beneath "Undergraduate", but the name "Undergraduate" is not itself highlighted. Highlighting "Undergraduate" would strengthen the connection between the section name and its corresponding tabs.
Additionally, the banner at the top of the page is a link. On most websites, the banner is a link to the homepage. In the case of the Department of Writing Studies, however, this banner takes the user to the top of the current section they are in. Let's say I'm on the "Major" page of the "Undergraduate" section. When I click the banner, rather than taking me back to the homepage, it takes me to the main page of the "Undergraduate" section. This makes the banner a false landmark, because it leads users into thinking that it goes somewhere it does not.