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Designing a website

Step 2 - Designing your site

Site organization

Although it isn't as exciting as the visual design or as prestigious as the engineering or editorial content, the organization—or information architecture—is often the crucial factor in a site's success.


While information architecture falls under design, it's intimately linked with strategy. You need a clear idea of who the site is for, and what it's supposed to accomplish, if you're going to organize and design it effectively.


You'll need to set goals for the site before you begin the organization process. If these decisions aren't made—or aren't communicated to the design team—the vague directives will cascade through the design process to the finished site. A muddled mission will reveal itself to the user through confusing categories or an inconsistent interface.


"Successful site architecture requires the organization to agree on common goals," says Jesse James Garrett. "And if you can't get the organization to agree on those common goals, you're not going to have a successful architecture or site."


Site organization is based on

  • User goals. The most important thing about a site's organization is that it makes sense to your users and corresponds with their goals when they arrive at your site.

  • Business goals. Site organization must also address your organizational goals, emphasizing those features or products most important to your success.

  • Classification systems for the content. The content or services on your site will likely fall into natural categories (or groups of overlapping categories).


Your site organization should be the best possible marriage between these three sometimes-conflicting criteria. Now if your site has only one subject, one business goal, and one kind of user (with only one need), the organizational task will be completely straightforward. But the reality is usually far more complicated.


You need a clear idea of who the site is for—and what it's supposed to accomplish—if you're going to organize it effectively.

Sites usually have several user groups, each of which has different needs at different times, several different types of content—which don't necessarily mesh together neatly—and different goals for the site, depending on who you ask in the company.


"It's challenging to create a nice, neat structure without any gaps in it," Garrett says. "And the challenges tend to come about either when you're serving audiences with really divergent needs or when you have internal corporate strategies that somehow end up working at cross purposes."


"It's nice to paint this idealized picture of the project where the company has one strategy and that one strategy is clearly articulated," he says. "But in fact that's not the case. Companies have lots of different strategies—different ones at different phases in their life cycle."


And there isn't always a lot of agreement on which strategy—or whose—is most important. "More than any other aspect of web development, the information architecture is likely to be the ship that runs aground on the rocky shores of corporate politics," Garrett says. "All the internal battles for resources in an organization—the battles for support for different corporate initiatives, the battles for visibility to the higher-up executives—all of these things end up getting played out in the decisions about site architecture.


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