We live in a digital age, but haven’t quite gotten to that mythical paperless society that we’ve been reading about for the past couple of decades. Those of us that make our living via websites still rely on good old fashioned compressed wood to fulfill a number of our daily tasks.
One of those tasks that often takes us away from our computer monitors and into the world of post-its, index cards, and cork boards has been when working on a site’s information architecture. This can be a big task, that often requires a lot of table or wall space.
Depending on the size of the site, there can be a lot of data to sift through, so you have to be able to make notes and move things around easily. Post-its, index cards, and cork boards make for great IA tools, as they allow for easy rearranging of your data at will. But, not everybody has boards large enough to handle the big jobs. And, some of us would rather do away with the paper all together.
There are a lot of different programs you can use to go paperless with your IA outline, but the three I use are: Xenu Link Sleuth, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft PowerPoint. Those are the only three tools I need to make a good road map for a site with all of it’s architectural pieces. Here’s how:
Step 1: Find all indexed URLs
When working on a site’s IA, the first thing you need is to get a bird’s eye view of the entire site. I’ll generally use Xenu’s Link Sleuth. This program is designed to find broken links, but, among other things, it will also give you a list of all the URLs that it found in the site.
When I get the Xenu report, I’ll copy the URLs into Microsoft Word. If the site is already somewhat organized, then it might be a good idea to import it into Excel, and order it alphabetically. This will ensure that pages in the same sub-folders all end up together.
This document becomes my reference point for pages that have been analyzed and mapped into the IA, versus the pages that haven’t. Generally, I start at the top and click on one URL at a time. As each page is analyzed, I highlight it some way in the URL document.
Using the document with all the URLs works better than clicking through the website page by page. That method can be confusing, as you are lead down multiple paths and have to remember each page you’ve visited already. By using the URLs as your base of reference, you never hit the same page twice (unless you do so deliberately) and you don’t miss any URLs accidentally.
Step 2: Visualize the Architecture
The next step is to set up your PowerPoint document. I might start with something that looks like this:
This will obviously require some manipulating, as you start filling in the pages and deciding what goes where. Until this is completed, it will be a fluid document.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to have a basic plan for the main navigation. However, be willing to adjust and change as you go. What you find as you assess each page may lend to changing your navigational strategy. As you find pages, directories, and sub-directories for each group, move things around in PowerPoint to accommodate.
If you don’t know where any given page should fit into the overall IA structure, either take a guess, or come back to it. Don’t be afraid to put something in the wrong place. As you build out your IA, you’re likely to be moving things around, adding or removing categories and sub-directories as needed.
When complete, your IA might look something like this:
Step 3: Provide Notes and Directions
Step 2 gives you a nice visual layout of how the site will be structured, but it also lacks important information that is crucial to those who will be implementing the new site architecture. As you explore the site page by page, you’ll often come across a number of different types of pages:
- Keepers (pages that will stay in the new site structure)
- Duplicates (pages that are duplicates of others)
- Redirected URLs (pages that are being moved or removed)
- Missing pages (pages that the site should have but doesn’t
- Junk (pages that will be deleted)
You’ll need to decide what to do with all of these, and make sure you provide instructions, so they each get handled properly.
In addition to the visual IA that we put together in PowerPoint, I also crate a second Word document that details all of our notes and instructions. This document will contain a bulleted list of all the categories, directories, and pages. Each bullet point will contain the following information:
- Name of the page (as referenced in the PowerPoint)
- The relation of that page in the NEW IA (where it will be found)
- The current URL of the page
- Special instructions for that page
The first three are there so the developers know exactly which page is being referenced, both from the current site standpoint and the new IA standpoint. The last one is critical because it let’s the developers know what changes need to be made to ensure this page is handled properly.
Notes that might be included for some pages are: “This page needs to link to…”, “new URL should be…”, “reformat this page to match…”, “Move this page to…”, “Delete and redirect to…”, “Merge this content with…”, “Remove all links to this URL…”.
This is just a sampling of some of the notes that may be necessary. Anything goes here. If it’s relevant to the usability and architecture of the site, you can throw it in.
Not every page has special instructions, so I like to highlight these instructions in red. This allows the developers to quickly scan through, without having to read the entire document word for word.
Don’t mistake this three-step process as being an “easy” process. The real work is in determining which pages go where. You want to create the most user- and search engine friendly format possible, being sure each page is in it’s “right” place.
Once completed, you have two documents (you can ditch the original URL document that you used as a reference) to show the higher ups and development team, which will allow them to both visualize your masterpiece and implement it without a hitch.