Moving Towards Modular
Publishers quit their linear content heritage when architecting Web sites.
Site design and architecture changes almost as quickly as the Internet technology that drives it. As publishers work their way through site rebuilds, developers must keep a sharp lookout on the horizon for changing trends. When it comes to organizing content, however, publishers can all agree on two things (for now): Thereâs content type and content topic. No longer simply concerned with arranging text-based content, publishers have a buffet of multimedia assets that must be displayed and arrangedâoften under myriad vertical nichesâin a way that facilitates the best user interaction and navigation. Trends are pointing toward simple, easy-to-use, modular architectures that blur the lines between content typeâtext, video, audioâwhile simultaneously corralling it into defined information centers.
The Experience Matters
The first thing to recognize, says Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, a Web site design and usability consultancy, is that user needs are different online than they are in print. Itâs an obvious distinction but one that forms the foundation of an online experience. âIn print, people are very issue-oriented and itâs also a more immersive experience where theyâll sit and leaf through the whole issue,â adds Nielsen. âOnline is the opposite. Itâs much more goal-driven and solution-oriented.â
Building a Web siteâs information architecture springs from the way the audience will use it, and fundamentally, this originates from a need to solve a problem or answer a question. âThat then begs the question of what the proper hierarchy should be,â says Nielsen. âThere is no specific answer to that because it depends on the market but think of it from a problem perspective and try to structure it around answers to those problems.â
It can be a tough transition. âThe challenge is creating a site that really anticipates and reflects the critical points in the workday of your community of readers,â says Alison Johns, vice president, e-media, business information group at Access Intelligence. âFor example, my products, as they evolve out of monthly magazines and into daily Web sites, have never been news-led. Weâve focused our build-outs on appealing to our readersâ needs for how-to and tutorial information.â
News is an easy target for publishers that desire a consistent level of content turnover, but in Johnsâ case, news was not what users were looking for on her site, Studiodaily.com. âWe did grow at first in the direction of news but realized that where we could offer the most to our community was by giving them rich media tutorials.â
Content for Studiodaily.com has coalesced around what the users are interacting with the most. âThe number-one destination on the site is the blog, not the news,â says Johns. âNow what we do is present the areas that we think will be the most engaging in the first scoop and that is still blogs, training and news.â
Categories and taxonomy certainly matter, particularly since magazine publishers often cover markets that contain a variety of vertical niches. Forbes.com, for example, which has 15 million to 20 million uniques per month, has a navigation system crafted around nine main verticals, with a number of subcategories under each. Tracking visitor patterns helps determine what content users are interested in.
âWeâll track on a very direct basis our high usage pages like the index pages for the channels and the home page for the site,â says Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of Forbes.com. âAnd we certainly will look at page views per session, page views per unique, time per session, time per unique, and so on.â
But some publishers are finding that a much more fluid presentation of content is gaining popularity among users. Particularly when content means anything from text to video to audio. âNavigation, when you used to design it, was set in stone,â says Johns. âBut now thereâs much more flexibility.â
While you want to make sure that visitors can use multiple techniques to find what theyâre looking forânavigation bars, search, related content, and othersârelying on a rigid hierarchy may backfire. âA lot of us have a tendency to get carried away with the need for identifying a ton of content buckets on the site,â says Scott McKenzie, vice president and editorial director of Nielsen Business Mediaâs digital division. âBut youâre actually doing a huge disservice to the audience. If you think about how you use sites that you visit every day you tend to do two things: You use the home page or you use search.â
Accordingly, McKenzie is leading a redesign of most of Nielsenâs Web sites. Billboard.com, for example, now has a modular, three-column design that incorporates a variety of content types while still offering a tabbed navigation scheme across the top of the page.
The home page displays a mix of every content type, giving users a variety of ways to interact with the site. Itâs a strategy thatâs particularly important for whatâs essentially the gateway. âThe home page is like a mini TOC,â says Eric Shanfelt, vice president of e-media at enthusiast publisher Aspire Media. âItâs giving you a preview into everything thatâs going on in the site.â
To illustrate, McKenzieâs redesign of Billboard.com brought video to the forefront, which used to be clicks away. âWe had a lot of video content that we were producing and had it in a sub-navigation area and people were just not finding it. When we re-skinned, the video usage went up 300 percent.â
Keep It in the Family
So content types are blending under content categories, but they should also be accessible in standalone âmedia centers.â This is all part of giving users redundant methods of finding what they want. âEvery piece of content really winds up being categorized in one of two ways,â says Shanfelt. âItâs defined by the kind of content it is and the category or categories in which it fits. So if Iâm navigating by topic Iâll find it or if Iâm navigating by type Iâll find it.â
Thereâs also huge importance in arranging and attracting related content subjects, especially from the search function. âPeople are lazy. They donât want to browse,â continues Shanfelt. âThey want to search and bring up all the results. When I search, Iâm not just looking for an article. Show me everything that you have thatâs related to this question, whether itâs a forum thread, a video, an article, whatever.â
Navigation used to reflect taxonomy but it doesnât anymore, adds Johns. âNor should it,â she says. âYou need to have the ability to pull that information of whatâs associated so people can go deeper into a particular topic.â
So, when constructing, or even rebuilding, a site, what comes firstâtaxonomy or navigation? The taxonomy may come first, but navigation is not far behind, and often merges with it as the site build progresses. âI start with the database,â says Johns, referring to building the taxonomy into the CMS. âI start with what the community wants now and how we can differentiate from the competition. Itâs about how youâre going to taxonomize the information your community needs and then how you prioritize itâwhat you float to the top and what you put off to the edges. You have to understand their needs and then you map that to your database and then map your navigation to that.â
Web Site Architecture and Navigation: 6 Tips
1. Start with the database (taxonomy) by focusing on what your users want, then build the navigation scheme on top of that.
2. Content categories should have their own mini-homepages, or information centers, where users have access to content associated to that one category.
3. If youâre rebuilding your site, examine the old siteâs search logs. This will provide insight into not only what users are looking for, but the language they use. Categorize your content accordingly.
4. Donât skimp on internal search functionality. You may have great content in a variety of formats, but if people canât find it and link to related content, itâs useless.
5. Integrate all content typesâvideo, audio, text, etc.âthat belong to a certain category. Donât isolate your video content on a video page, for example.
6. Weed out or de-emphasize short, one-off posts from search results. Users are typically looking for substantial content, not a two-sentence blog post that might have had value in its day, but no archival value.
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