One of the most important elements of a successful website is how the site’s content is structured. This is sometimes referred to as ‘getting the navigation right’ – although this isn’t strictly true, as the navigation is just a representation of the structure, not the structure itself. Although this sounds like I’m splitting hairs, there is an important distinction, which I’ll go into later.

We will obviously want to make the content of the website easy to find. When sitting down with customers to discuss this for the first time, I often find that:

  • the company is organised into divisions, groups or teams for the benefit of efficient resourcing. An example would be a recruitment company, which has different teams to manage different industries (such as telecoms and government).
  • the company believes that the structure of those divisions is important to the company’s customers.
  • the customer believes that the website’s content should be presented in a way which matches those divisions.

In many cases, this logic does not hold – indeed, it can create a website structure that is actually confusing to many users.

Organising a business into divisions or teams is normal practice. It provides accountability and focus. It’s generally good for customers – because a team will build up expertise in a particular market sector, which will then add value to the customers in that sector.

However, customers are seldom interested in this structure and in many cases are not aware of it. Why should they be? When you buy a television, do you ask to see the ‘television expert’ or a member of the ‘television team’? Nope, you just want to talk to someone who can help you.

Companies often believe that their internal structure, while it is undoubtedly of value to customers, is also of interest to them. It seldom is.

Some organisational structures don’t make sense to outsiders no matter how you try to explain them. For example, I once reported to a marketing director who was also responsible for HR. Or, a recruitment team might recruit both training and HR professionals. These may seem related, but not if you are a professional in either category – each is actually pretty alien to the other. Likewise, sales and marketing, which recruitment companies often combine but are, to the people involved, often totally different things.

So, in fact, it is more likely to be true that:

  • efficient organisational structures (even ‘customer-facing’ ones) may not reflect how customers think.
  • customers are seldom even interested in organisational structures.
  • some organisational structures are actually confusing to customers, even if they work internally.

With this knowledge, it’s not too much of a leap to realise that organising information on a website to reflect an organisation’s internal structure is potentially flawed.

This isn’t a trivial matter. When information (including products and services) isn’t easy to find, customers don’t usually ask for help – they leave. On sites where the organisation of information is poor, implementing a new, more logical structure can see an instant and marked increase in enquiries and sales.

To organise information correctly, we need to think how customers think. To organise products and services in a way that’s logical for them. The larger the volume of information, the greater the need to get this right.

A real-world example of this is the organisation of computer training courses. Some research shows that different training companies organise this information in different ways. So, a course on ‘Dreamweaver’ could be (on different websites) found in categories titled ‘Website design’, ‘Website development’, ‘Graphic design’, ‘Adobe’, ‘HTML development’ – and so on.

You could argue that each is a logical place for the course to live. The problem with that is that the course may then need to live in multiple places, to satisfy vague logic – and that’s just plain confusing. When you add in other, similar courses, the problem is multiplied – if you have 100 courses, and each is in 6 categories, that’s a lot of extra work.

Plus, assumptions are being made about how customers think about where the course would be most easily found, based on the supposed role of the customer. Actually, there is a set logic that most people would understand – the maker of the product. For a computer training company, this would give us a top-level category of ‘Adobe’, ‘Cisco’, ‘Citrix’, ‘Microsoft’ and so on. And then we might have a second category level of (in Adobe’s case) ‘Acrobat’, ‘Dreamweaver’, ‘Fireworks’ and so on.

Arranging the courses, and categories, alphabetically will make everything easier for visitors. The number of times that training companies put ‘Microsoft’ at the top of a list because ‘we do more training in that than anything else’ astounds me. That’s information the customer doesn’t have and is irrelevant – putting it anywhere other than where ‘M’ comes in the alphabet just makes it harder to find.

This structure won’t work for all instances. For example, electrical goods would not be best organised by brand, but by type: televisions, irons, washing machines and so on – and then perhaps by feature.

What’s often interesting about undertaking the exercise of organising the website’s information is that it often helps companies to communicate their proposition much more clearly too – since the divisional viewpoint will almost certainly also exist in items such as brochures, presentations and so on – and they are usually as relevant there as they are on a website.

In many cases, helping customers through this process is often cited by them as one of the best ways in which we’ve helped them – making everything much, much clearer for customers.