Nothing but a House of Cards – (Tips for Orgainzing Your Website)

"Man building house of cards"One of the most eyeopening and humbling experiences early in my professional career was when I learned that the website I had labored over wasn’t nearly as user friendly or intuitive as I thought it was.  The customer experience was ok, but lacking in a few key areas and we were almost invisible in the search engine results.

We’d followed all of the best practices.  There were thorough requirements documents, screen mock-ups, and we’d incorporated website usability tips on every page.

We ran the operation on a tight budget and I was always looking for creative ways to gain insight beyond numbers like website traffic, bounce rate, and conversion to understand what was behind the numbers.  It’s fine to know visitors jettison from one page type at a significantly higher rate than any other page on the site, but no amount of internal speculation can answer the question accurately.

I stumbled across an opportunity to participate in something called a ‘”listening lab.” A listening lab is a research method in which participants take part if a facilitated, but non-directed usability study.

That was quite a mouthful, so let me add some clarification. Participants (actual customers and prospects for your product or service) are asked by the facilitator to “put their brain on speaker phone” while they navigate the internet and ultimately your website to accomplish a loosely defined task such as planning a party or shopping for china.

The cool thing is that the website owners get to watch the action from the other side of a two-way mirror.  While I knew the website wasn’t perfect it was agonizing to watch one participant after another struggle to find the website in search engines and get stuck once they got to the website.  It was all I could do not to leap through the mirror and say “click here!”

What we learned that day was that we had some major issues with how our website was structured.  We expected to find that they stumbled during the checkout process, but instead we learned that they were having hard time even finding the products.  Wow!  Can you say we were missing out on some sales?

We thought we had considered the four key components of Information Architecture:

  1. Organization-how your pages, links, and content are laid out
  2. Labeling-the content, text, and labeling (KWP) on your pages
  3. Navigation-how visitors navigate your site
  4. Site Search-how visitors find something they’re looking for on your site.

And we had, but the missing ingredient was the customer point of view and perspective.

Through the eyes of our customers we realized that our website categories were organized around internal divisions and areas of responsibility and the naming convention was ‘us speak’ and not in the the words and phrases our customers used when thinking of our products.

The way we had named and organized the categories and named them was adversely affecting the customer experience from the time they typed a keyword phrase into Google until they left the site.

The good news is that the problems were relatively easy to fix.  It took time and patience to reorganize and re-label everything. Although some customers (and call center reps) missed the way it used to be we saw dramatic improvement in all of those important metrics.  More people were finding us through organic search, they were staying longer, viewing more pages, and most importantly they were buying more.

A few important lessons were learned:

  • You may think you know your customers and think they shop like you do, but chances are they don’t.
  • Poorly organized and labeled categories contribute to a poor user experience and make it difficult for customers to navigate your website.
  • Poorly developed Information Architecture will have a negative affect on your search engine optimization efforts.

Information Architecture and organizing a website so that people can find what they’re looking for is often an afterthought and not taken into consideration from the very beginning if at all.  We’ve all been on websites where it seems almost impossible to find anything (my bet is that you leave them as quickly as I do).

Information Architecture – Organizing Your Site the Right Way:

  1. Group information by subject matter, functions, tasks, etc.
  2. Use keyword research to identify synonyms and how people search, e.g. are they searching on “flatware” or “silverware?”
  3. Keep labels consistent if you use “home” in one place, use that label everywhere (consider incorporating a keyword phrase with the word “home”)
  4. Use generic, high level keywords for site-wide navigation
  5. Use more specific keywords in links on interior pages
  6. Include sitemaps

The most important take away is that it’s critical to design and structure your website from a customer-centric point of view.  You don’t have to have a big budget to find out what your customers are thinking about your website. Tap into your internal resources.

  • Listen in on phone calls and hear first hand where your customers are having trouble with the website
  • Read emails and look for recurring themes
  • Use people within your organization (or friends) to test new functionality before you implement it

Information Architecture is like the foundation of a building.

Is your website sound or is it at risk of crumbling like a house of cards?