On top of design, clients look to us to help untangle the volumes of information they show on the web. Obviously, one wants a website to be more than a data dump where the user can’t find anything because they are presented with everything at once. The challenge is how to sort out the most important information and organize it in a way to keep it simple. (We have yet to find a client that doesn’t ask for a simple, easy to use interface.)
Most often, client information comes to us arranged in the manner which makes sense from an internal perspective. Maybe the volunteer coordinator has one set of data and the project coordinator has another. Or the software department has their priorities and the the hardware department has theirs. Information is sorted by department, by region, or even by the people who assembled their content. At some point, they talk to each other behind the scenes and make the business work. As you might expect, this default approach may not be the best way to present information to the public.
First and foremost, we ask questions: Who is going to be looking at your site? Who do you want to attract? What do you want them to do when they get there? What are they trying to find? Where are your bottlenecks? What is the most profitable or attractive business for you? We tailor a site’s information structure based on the answers to those questions.
For a regional airport website, GoCHO.com, the primary audience is travelers; the secondary is administration (including staff, board, applicants, etc). We created a flight control center for travelers and located it on the home page. To keep crucial data at their fingertips, we created a tab structure in the control center to allow users to flip between functions without leaving that page. We subordinated administrative information to a secondary level of pages and distinguished them with a color-code system. That became the organizing principal – the primary structure of the site that provided users a clear way in.
For Live Arts, Charlottesville’s community theatre, the primary audience is patrons with volunteers, cast, crew, etcetera, running a close second. We displayed the current and upcoming plays front and center for the primary user with opportunities to participate one click away for the secondary group. On the administrative side of the site, we overhauled the entire structure to relate all functions to the shows Live Arts put on, as much as practical. That meant that once a show was created in the content management system, the director could add audition dates, the volunteer coordinator could add work dates, the dramaturge could add resources for additional reading, the box office manager could add dates and times and anyone else could add blog entries. The show is the organizing principal that crystalizes all of the other information.
A current project for a builder will be organized around photo galleries of their work and their people. These are the most distinguishing things about them and what users will be most interested to learn about. The additional information that doesn’t fit into these two categories is treated as secondary. It will still be easily accessible, but not as prominent in the overall design.
Great websites are more than just good looking design. The same holds true of any other faceted project: You need to make sure that when you put it all together, you have carefully considered the options and have given your users a clear way in.