Evolving Web: 3 Ways to Avoid Common Information Architecture Mistakes

We all recognize bad information architecture when we see it on a website. There are some signs that the creators didn’t do a great job in terms of content structure and organization:

  • Confusing menu labels
  • Haphazard topic organization
  • Critical information and actions jumbled in with general news and marketing copy
  • Site searches that return useless, obsolete information

While it’s frustrating to come across these issues on someone else’s website, it feels much worse when we realize we’ve made those mistakes ourselves.

In this article, we’ll look at three common foundational mistakes that lead us into trouble when organizing website content. Let’s see how we can do better:

  • Working from a vague audience definition
  • Keeping obsolete content
  • Designing for hypothetical content

First Step: Develop and Rest Your Personas

Before you start thinking about your information architecture, whether for a new site or improving an existing site, take a step back and revisit your personas. Well-developed personas allow you to empathize with your audience and better understand how to help them get what they need.

Try to get beyond demographic profiles and assumptions, and talk to real, live people so you can create an ideal experience for them. (The UX and Content Strategy component of our upcoming Drupal Content Creator Track takes you from audience definition to using that information as a foundation for your entire Drupal site experience.)

Mistake #1: Haphazard Taxonomy

Solution: Understand, Plan, and Maintain Your Taxonomy

Intuitively, we use Taxonomy to create menus and topical landing pages, but the power of Drupal’s Taxonomy system goes well beyond that. These simple lists of terms provide the backbone for Drupal sites. When used well, they allow for smart, context-aware information architecture that presents users with just what they need when they need it.

Clean, well-structured Taxonomy will enable you to automate everything from menu creation and recommendations to landing pages and customize your analytics reporting. You can even use it to assign CSS and templates or access rules.

Taxonomy is that powerful. The catch, though, is that it must be good. Like, really good.

If we don’t plan our Taxonomy well, it loses power. When terms overlap in meaning or don’t cover everything, Drupal can’t make smart decisions by itself, and we’ll miss valuable opportunities. Taxonomy can also decay and get messy if it isn’t maintained, especially when there’s a large amount of diverse content and many people add terms and tags over time.

Fortunately, you don’t need to get too technical to understand how Drupal’s Taxonomy does its magic. By focusing on a few key principles, you (yes, you!) can harness the power of Taxonomy. Check out “How to Organize Your Drupal Content with Taxonomies” by Leigh Ryan for a more detailed guide.

Mutual Exclusivity: Avoid Overlapping Terms

One key to optimal Taxonomy is ensuring that each term is distinct, with no ambiguity as to when to use it. Drupal enables this through hierarchical taxonomy structure, where terms can have sub-terms and Taxonomy takes on an “is a” tree structure. Here are two examples of good and bad Taxonomy:

Flat, ambiguous, not distinct Clear hierarchy with “is a” relationships
  1. Purebred
  2. Mixed Breed
  3. Poodle
  4. Shih Tzu
  5. Siberian Husky
  6. Labradoodle
  7. Yorkshire Terrier
  8. Puggle
  9. Cavapoo
  10. French Bulldog
  11. Labrador Retriever
 

  1. Purebred
    1. Poodle
    2. Shih Tzu
    3. Siberian Husky
    4. Yorkshire Terrier
    5. Labrador Retriever
    6. French Bulldog
  2. Mixed Breed
    1. Labradoodle
    2. Puggle
    3. Cavapoo

 

In the first example, each content creator decides for themselves which terms to assign. For an article about Labradoodles, it is apparent that “Mixed Breed” and “Labradoodle” should apply… but should they also assign terms for “Poodle” and “Labrador Retriever”?

Creating a hierarchy of mutually exclusive terms makes it easier to consistently choose the correct terms across a team. In the second example, “Labradoodle” is clearly a concept distinct from “Poodle” or “Labrador Retriever” in our information architecture. Labradoodle “is a” Mixed Breed and not a Purebred, so it should not be assigned as Poodle or Labrador Retriever.

Such clarity and consistency in assigning terms are vital to Drupal’s use of Taxonomy.

Collective Exhaustivity: Cover Everything

Ambiguity in “where to put things” can also occur when the available Taxonomy doesn’t cover all of your content.

Let’s take our dog example: the Purebred sub-terms include Yorkshire Terrier, which is great… until you have an article about Scottish Terriers. There’s no term for Scottish Terrier, and the closest thing is Yorkshire Terrier. So, do we assign it to that? Or add a term for Scottish Terrier?

If we add the Yorkshire Terrier term, our Scottish Terrier article will come up in lists, landing pages, and recommendations for content about Yorkshire Terriers. It might not be that bad, but what if, over time, there are also articles on Jack Russell Terriers and Airedale Terriers? Or maybe your audience ends up liking Scottish Terriers, so you do more articles about them, but then your Yorkshire Terrier content list will be mostly not about Yorkshire Terriers.

By adding a term for Scottish Terrier, we’ll no longer miscategorize our article. But now, our automated menus and landing pages are serving up a single piece of content. And if we later add terms for Jack Russell and Airedale content, that won’t work well either.

This shows us why we need to be careful about not only what we’ve got but how we’re likely to grow. With so many breeds in the Terrier group, we might include Terrier as a sub-term of Purebred and then add the various specific Terrier breeds under that term as needed.

Ad hoc Terriers Clear hierarchy with “is a” relationships
  1. Purebred
    1. Poodle
    2. Shih Tzu
    3. Siberian Husky
    4. Yorkshire Terrier
    5. Scottish Terrier
    6. Labrador Retriever
    7. French Bulldog
    8. Airedale Terrier
  2. Mixed Breed
    1. Labradoodle
    2. Puggle
    3. Cavapoo
  1. Purebred
    1. Poodle
    2. Shih Tzu
    3. Siberian Husky
    4. Terriers
      1. Yorkshire Terrier
      2. Scottish Terrier
      3. Airedale Terrier
    5. Labrador Retriever
    6. French Bulldog
  2. Mixed Breed
    1. Labradoodle
    2. Puggle
    3. Cavapoo

 

Prevent Decay: Minimize and Fix Typos

Back when your website was shiny and new, everything felt tidy and perfect, and you couldn’t wait to fill it with exciting, well-organized content. Over time, though, you fed it with lots of content, and multiple people adding terms and tags made your Taxonomy lose its power. As a result, you risk presenting typos, confusing synonyms, and other content mistakes to users.

Fortunately, there are tools and processes to help avoid that:

  • Use more restrictive field types. You can configure the fields for Taxonomy terms in your content types to allow content authors to add new terms. Ask your developer or administrator to disallow term creation from the content type for the tightest control.
  • Limit user permissions. If you want specific content creators and editors to manage Taxonomy terms, a Taxonomy Manager role could enable relevant permissions. Team members who should have that access can be assigned the Taxonomy Manager role. This role can be more granular if needed, with a set of permissions for each vocabulary.
  • Clean up the junk. If you opt to allow authors to add new terms when creating content, make it part of your routine to look for errors and redundancies and clean them up. Modules like Taxonomy Manager provide tools for restructuring and merging terms to keep Taxonomy clean without making corrections node by node.

Mistake #2: Keeping Obsolete Content

Solution: Audit Content Constantly

I don’t know about you, but something is satisfying about a decluttered, organized closet. It’s tidy. You know exactly what you’ve got, why you’ve got it, how you will use it, and where it goes. And you like or need everything.

You’d benefit from doing the same with your content. Try periodically sifting through your web pages and removing whatever is no longer helpful, just like in your real-world storage spaces.

The Content Clutter Conundrum

For the last couple of decades, we’ve all been shouting from the rooftops: “Content is KING!!!” (Trivia: the phrase originated with none other than Bill Gates in this essay from 1996.)

It’s still true, but there’s a catch. When we discover a shirt with a hole in it, we either mend it or get rid of it, so we stop inadvertently wearing it. The same goes for content: when we have redundant or obsolete content, fix it or kill it.

If we don’t make a conscious effort to clear out the things that are no longer worth showing people, they will see those things.

Avoiding this is especially important in the context of government, financial, educational, medical, or non-profit sectors. In these areas, inaccurate and outdated information can have serious consequences for both the organization and its audiences.

Content clutter muddies your message, confuses your audiences, introduces personal and regulatory risk, and makes creating an effective information architecture more challenging.

The Content Audit Solution

You don’t want to wait to stumble on bad content passively. You should proactively look for it.

If you’re embarking on a whole new website project, congratulations! You have a fresh empty closet you can curate to match your minimalism dreams… erm, you have the opportunity to restructure your entire content pool and information architecture to meet everyone’s needs.

If you’re just trying to make the website you already have more effective, this will still help you. In fact, content auditing and tracking should be an ongoing part of managing your site’s content.

Identify the areas of greatest importance or risk and start there. Then, go through all your content, catalogue it, and question its existence on behalf of your organization and audience. This process is referred to as a ROT analysis (Redundant, Out-of-Date, and Trivial):

  • Do we like this?
  • Do we need this?
  • Does this actually do what it should do?
  • If not, can we fix it?
  • Can we just get rid of (or archive) this?

Keep the best, toss the rest, and regularly check for pieces that no longer serve you well. Then, when it’s time to remove them, Drupal’s Redirect module lets you, well, redirect visitors to more appropriate content if they stumble upon an old link or search result.

Don’t let old, inaccurate, or lacklustre content gunk up your information architecture and detract from your message and services. Check out this post by Suzanne Dergacheva for more decluttering talk and an intro to the card sorting technique.

Mistake #3: Designing for Hypothetical Content

Solution: Design With Real Content

Back in the day, most websites were either visual playgrounds where designers showed off the latest special effects or fairly simple pages of articles or general information. A design-first workflow became commonplace, where the first step in creating a new website was to create a mockup, using abstract lorem ipsum text as a stand-in for content that had not yet been written.

It worked for a while. Back then, good information architecture mostly meant organizing pages into tidy sections with user-friendly menus. Things have changed, though. We have loads of content to sift through, in many different formats, on a range of devices. And a CMS like Drupal allows for granular definitions of content types and their relationships. This granularity allows us to create an information architecture for adaptive, context-aware user experiences.

The Trouble With Lorem Ipsum

When designing a project with placeholder text, creating an ecosystem that lets content shine is hard. As a result, the design loses power, even becoming an obstacle to highlight our content effectively. Most of us have had to deal with the results of this practice:

  • Bland intros trimmed too short, so they fit neatly into a box
  • Images omitted because the aspect ratio doesn’t work
  • Awkward title wrapping because the homepage blocks are too narrow
  • Misalignments because layouts only work for specific character counts
  • Inconsistencies because editors had to guess how to format content

On the more technical side, hypothetical content can result in poorly configured or vague content types.

Only well-designed content types and granular fields allow us to fully leverage the slice-and-dice remixing capabilities of a CMS like Drupal.

Otherwise, we’ll miss opportunities to present relevant messages where they would have the biggest impact.

Content-first Design

Whether you’re creating a whole new site, giving an old site a refresh, or just adding a new landing page template to an existing site, start with real content, and do it realistically.

  • Does your voice tend toward titles that border on paragraphs? Design for that.
  • Does your team tend to rely on free images that come in different aspect ratios? Design for that.
  • Do you have collections of related content or information that could lead your audience into a deep dive if you could present the right bits at the right time? Design for that.
  • Did your content audit reveal that users regularly copy and paste structured content into rich-text fields, where they can’t be accessed, repurposed, or themed programmatically? Design your content types for that.

The power of your message and your platform rests within your content. Start with that.

Focus on the Foundation and Avoid Mistakes

A building supported by a haphazard foundation is doomed to fall. The same holds for our websites. So if you’re embarking on a new site rebuild, resist the urge to dive into talking about new designs and features. That’s exciting, I know, but you’ve got important work to do first.

If you’re improving an existing website, do the same. Fix what you can, apply it moving forward, and keep notes, so you know what needs to be done differently for your site’s next iteration.

Keen audience insights, content-centric design, and regular content audits can get you further than you might think.


PS – Are you a content creator, editor, or manager trying to get the most out of your Drupal site? We cover Drupal-specific information architecture, SEO, and content management in our upcoming Drupal Content Creator Track.


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