At Firecat Studio, we do a lot of Website Redesigns. When a client approaches us for a redesign, they often say, "Our site looks outdated." And when we look at it together, they're right - we see a site using outmoded styles, maybe a Flash element, a width or orientation to the screen that says "Nobody considered mobile design when this was last touched."
We Want A Makeover
They say things like:
- This is using our OLD logo. We want a NEW logo.
- I hate these colors. We need fresher colors.
- I'd like to see some different choices of fonts.
- We want a slideshow like our competitors have. I want it to MOVE!
These are perfectly reasonable requests, but frankly, they leave me a bit cold. I don't get nearly as excited about a site's skin and makeup as I do about it's general health and bone structure.
So a visit with Firecat can be more like seeing an architect, and less like going to a salon. Lately, I've had a couple of clients coming in asking much deeper, more perspective questions. In the past couple of weeks, I've heard:
- How should we categorize the information?
- What should our "navigation tabs" be so that people can find their way?
Music to my ears! I get all geeked out and excited about the organization of information. About optimizing navigation and labeling to get people where they want to go.
It's pretty common, actually, for clients to ask us to put "everything no more than a click away." That isn't easy, and it isn't always the best solution. I understand why they ask for it though.
Putting content into a straightforward, clearly labeled navigation scheme seems really easy until you try it, and then watch someone ELSE use your scheme. Some of my most valuable experience has been spending time behind one-way glass in a usability lab, watching people struggle with an information architecture or navigation I was SURE was a winner. What makes sense to me doesn't necessarily make sense to a user.
Fresh Set of Eyes
It's hard for anyone too familiar with a content set to create great navigation. As a vendor who's relatively new to a client's content, I'm positioned well to represent users - at the beginning of a client relationships. After working with a client over several years, I start thinking of the content like the insiders do, and lose that "fresh set of eyes" magic.
The Scent of Information
Jared Spool of UIE has written, taught and podcasted extensively about the designing for the Scent of Information. The idea is, users will happily follow a navigation trail across several links or clicks as long as they remain confident that they are on the correct trail. Consider this example: You need to update a printer driver. You go to the HP website. You have no problem following a trail with up to 20 clicks, as long as it was a straightforward trail. Such as:
HP > Support > Downloads > Print Drivers > LaserJet > Model 1320n > MacOS X > Download Now
Imagine a user thinking "Yep!" "Right." "LaserJet, there is is." "Bingo!" Bop, bop, bop.
In this example, there's a couple things at work that make the scent straightforward. The user and the company have a shared vocabulary. Every item in this complex hierarchy can be put into a mutually exclusive category - categories don't have to overlap, they're not messy.
But not all content sets are that straightforward.
Flat Versus Deep Information Architecture
Jakob Nielsen (another go-to User-Centered Design advice source) puts out an Alertbox on Flat versus Deep Information Architecture. Here's a summary:
Like most design questions, there's no single right answer, and going too far to either extreme will backfire. Flat hierarchies tend to work well if you have distinct, recognizable categories, because people don't have to click through as many levels. When users know what they want, simply get out of the way and let them find it.
But there are exceptions to every rule. In some situations, there are simply too many categories to show them all at one level. In other cases, showing specific topics too soon will just confuse your audience, and users will understand your offerings much better if you include some intermediate category pages to establish context.
We offer a handy Website Redesign Checklist to help explore some of these deeper issues, and we'd be happy to send you a copy.