This is the first post in a series that takes a look at information architecture (IA) best practices in higher education. Each post will focus on a specific best practice. In this post we’ll discuss audience navigation.
For those new to information architecture, it is the practice of organizing information, in this case websites and the content found within them, to make it understandable and findable. Information can be messy and IA tries to make sense of it.
What is audience navigation?
It’s the practice of organizing your website by audience group. In higher education that usually means prospective student, current student, faculty, staff, etc.
At first glance it makes sense. Our main audiences appear to have little in common—faculty, prospective students, and alumni can have different needs at least some of the time. But as we look closer, we find three very good reasons to take a step back and rethink our assumptions about audience navigation.
Reason 1: People can fit into more than one category
Students can be adjunct faculty, staff members take classes, an alum could be a prospective student—you get the picture. When this happens, and it happens more than you think, it forces people to stop and make an extra decision before they ever start using the website. And that slows people down and increases their cognitive effort, making your site more difficult to use.
Audience navigation can make visitors question the completeness of a section—does it contain all the information they need? Do they need to look elsewhere? But it can also do the opposite and make visitors think it is the only place to find information they need. When they don’t find what they need they’ll leave instead of further exploring your website.
Reason 2: It bloats your website
Often there is a considerable amount of content that applies to more than one audience group, resulting in the duplication of content across audiences. This in turn leads to a bloated, redundant website.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It increases the time and expense of maintaining your website and your chances of having incorrect and out-of-date content. Visitors assume your content is accurate and it’s your responsibility to ensure that it is. Incorrect content not only provides a poor user experience, it can also be a legal liability.
Reason 3: Is the content for me or about me?
A section labeled Prospective Students may seem clear to the people who built it, but it is surprisingly unclear to visitors. A Prospective Students section could contain content for students or about students. The lack of clarity requires another decision by a visitor, again slowing them down and taking them away from their original task. If you really must use audience navigation be sure to at least clarify if it is for or about the audience.
So, how should you organize your site?
There isn’t one right way to organize your website. A good place to start is by evaluating your existing website and setting up some goals for your new website. You can kick start this process by asking these questions:
- Is your target audience taking away the correct information from your current website?
- If not, what needs to change so they do?
- What is the goal or intent of your website? What do you need people to do when they come to the site?
- What information is your audience looking for and what tasks are they trying to accomplish?
If you think about your information architecture through this lens, you’ll be on your way to creating a structure that works for your audience and your organization.