This is the fourth 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 org chart 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 org chart navigation?
It is the practice of organizing your website to match the structure of your organization. Let’s say your organization handles the Center for Student Involvement, Auxiliary Services, and Student Life and Learning. If you’re using an org chart navigation structure the main navigation of your website might look something like this:
Org chart navigation often happens when a site has been built internally and/or there hasn’t been much thought about the target audience and their needs. It’s also used to make it easier for organizations to deal with internal user permissions and site updates. On the surface this structure seems like it would be a good solution but it actually creates some serious problems for your users. Let’s examine a few of the reasons why.
Reason 1: Visitors don’t know or care about your organization’s structure
It sounds harsh but it’s true. Visitors don’t have the time or inclination to learn your organization’s structure. It’s not their priority. Their priority is to find the information they came to your site to find.
If we look at this through the lens of university websites we can see that it’s especially true of prospective students, their parents, and people new to a university setting.
Let’s take a quick look at the prospective student audience.
- They don’t know the ins and outs of how the university is organized
- They are looking at other universities that may be organized differently
- They are probably not familiar with our university’s acronyms and/or may confuse them with acronyms they have seen elsewhere
- They are stressed, anxious, and trying to make a huge life decision—having to learn our peculiarities adds to that anxiety
Don’t think you’re off the hook if your audience isn’t students. Faculty may have some familiarity with these terms, but it doesn’t mean they know them all. Staff, especially those who have never worked in a university setting, may be just as unfamiliar as a prospective student.
Making our audiences learn our peculiarities to properly navigate our websites is a huge burden to them. It’s our responsibility to remove that burden and present a useful, enjoyable experience.
Reason 2: Each organization is unique
In a perfect world an organization’s names and responsibilities would be consistent from place to place and sector to sector, but we know that’s not the case. The same department or organization may exist at different universities, but their responsibilities may differ. Or vice versa.
It may be that your organization may have totally unique set of responsibilities not found anywhere else. If this is the case and you’re using an org chart navigation structure you’re requiring your visitors to have an in-depth knowledge of your organization—an unrealistic expectation.
Reason 3: Your organization could change
What happens if the structure of your organization changes? The purpose of your organization changes, it gains or loses responsibilities, you merge with another organization, etc. It happens more often than you think. If you’ve built your website around your structure you’ll have to restructure it each time something changes. That means your visitors have to learn a new structure too. It doesn’t provide a good user experience and it isn’t a sustainable model.
Reason 4: Users come to sites to find specific information and complete tasks
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, people are coming to your site to find specific information and complete tasks. We need to make it easy for them to do that. Don’t let your desire to make things easy for you stand in the way of what your visitors want and need to do. Our sites are here to help our visitors, let’s make sure they do.