Create a site structure

Once you have assessed what your audiences need from your website it is easier to define topics and organise these into a logical structure.

Create topics and/or labels

Finding out what your audience needs will give you a fair idea of the topics you would like to see on your website. They may change as you start to write the content, but for now it can be helpful to write down each of those topic on an individual card or note.

Organise topics into logical groupings

For most sites you will come up with far too many topics to be able to list everything on your website menu - you need to come up with some way to group similar topics together so that your menu is manageable. If your site is large you might end up with sub-groups inside your groups. This sort or arrangement is called a hierarchy.

Most sites are organised into a simple hierarchy with a single homepage, a number of key sections, and some pages within those sections. This hierarchy is usually represented by the menu on the left hand side of each website. There are no strict rules about how many sections you can have but you do want to make sure that you don't have so many that it becomes overwhelming for your audience.

Main menu items (groups) are usually arranged around one or more group types.

  1. Audience - group all things relevant to an audience together, for example Future students
  2. Task - group all things relevant to carrying out a particular task or process together, for example: Enroling in programs
  3. Theme - group all things relevant to a topic, subject, service or function together, for example: Research or Physical Sciences or Recycling & Rubbish

When organising your content into a hierarchy the main thing you're trying to do is create groups and labels that will make sense to your audience and reflect the words and terms that they are likely to use to try and find things.

Do not organise your groupings around the people who look after these things. For example even though your media team might be responsible for seminars and conferences you would not put 'seminars and conferences' under 'media' – your audience is unlikely to know who manages it and they will not think to look under media for a seminar.

Try to use words that your audience understands. For example, you might use the word endowment to talk about the way that the University thinks about funding but your audience might be looking for donations or contributions or giving.

Other tips for organising:

  • the University website typically groups information for students, staff, and alumni – this is a structure that many of our audience is used to
  • only break down content into different audience groups if there is different information – do not create pages for every audience if they all contain the same content
  • make sure the most important and frequently used information is at the top of your hierarchy – if you have some sort of overview page this should go towards the top of your menu, then you should organise things by priority/importance and finish off with contacts towards the bottom
  • do not use FAQs – these rarely contain genuine frequently asked questions and they often become a dumping ground for little bits and pieces of information that don't seem to fit elsewhere – if you have structured your site well people should not have any questions after reading the appropriate sections
  • if you have content in particular formats (audio, video, PDF) do not organise your content around these groupings – people tend to think about the topic they are interested first and then make a choice about the type of format they would like to see that information in.
  • if your website is for an organisational unit there will usually be pages for about us, news and events, and then either the audience groups you are serving (students, staff etc), the types of activities that can be performed on your site (register, request etc), or the topics you provide information on (health, mathematics, fruit), then finally contacts towards the bottom.

Get help with your groupings

Sometimes it helps to use post-it notes which roughly outline each topic and then arrange those post-it notes in groups or hierarchies to represent the structure that you think will work best.

If you do it alone you end up with a website that will suit you, but it might not suit others.

If possible get other people involved in the grouping and sorting – you might be surprised what other options people prefer that you had never thought of. Even if you can only get five people to help with your groupings you'll have a better structure than you started with. Try to get people who represent your audience groups and/or people who think differently to you.

You would usually use a card sorting exercise to get others involved:

  • Open sort: you list all the different topics you are trying to group onto small cards or post-it notes and then ask the audience to group them in ways that make sense to them and to give them group headings.
  • Closed sort: you come up with the major group headings and then ask people to organise the content into those groups.

You can do these sorts in a roomful of people or you can use online tools such as Chalkmark to reach a broader audience.

The main point of a card sort is to understand how the audience would group information so that you can organise your website in this way. You might think that the content should be organised in one way but if the majority of the audience are organising it differently this will indicate that organising it your way probably won't work on the website – you won't be leaning over their shoulder to tell them which menu item they should choose.

Test your structure

Once you have a structure that you think works you could test it before you try to implement it. To test a structure you would usually outline a series of tasks and then ask people (representative of your key audiences) to perform those tasks by navigating through your menu – you observe whether they can easily locate the correct page or whether that they seem a bit lost. This will help you to fine tune your menu labels and make sure that people will be able to find the information they need on your website before you start to build it.

You can do this type of exercise in person with cards that represent the menu structure, or mock the menu up on your website without any content underneath, or use an online tool such as TreeJack to the test large numbers of people.

Once you have your structure defined and tested you can start writing content to fill the pages.

Updated:  26 February 2013/ Responsible Officer:  Director Marketing/ Page Contact:  Webstyle