To take a look at why a site’s information design is so important, let’s step away from the web for a moment. Say it is a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the fall, and you decide to go for a walk in the woods. Now consider two basic types of walks, one successful and one not. On the successful walk, you start at the trailhead, make your way onto the trail, and meander along, stopping here and there to enjoy the foliage. Eventually, you follow the trail markers back to the trailhead. The walk concludes, and your body and mind are all the better for it.
Conversely, what if, halfway through the walk, you realize you have not seen a trail marker in a little too long? Within moments, your heart and mind switch into survival mode, and before you know it, your pleasant walk is over. Your only care is to get out of these weird, spooky woods and back to your car right away.
YOUR HOME PAGE IS NOT YOUR HOME PAGE
The same type of thing is true when we navigate websites. Because many of us arrive on sites after being referred to a specific page through a search engine, we often find ourselves on some low- level page far, far away from that homepage everyone so carefully considered when the site was being built.
Because of our search-based leanings, you must consider every page of your site to be its home page. Ask yourself, “What would I think of this site if I landed, sight unseen, on the third page of that archived newsletter from February 2005, or the fifth brochure page of the oldest case study in the portfolio? Would I have an intuitive sense of where I am in the greater context of the site? Would I know who my company is, what we do, and what other areas of the site I should visit, all without leaving the current page?”
If the site you currently have or are building passes this test, then its information design is functioning well. Most sites, however, do not pass this test. They fail because agencies and web developers do curious things like rush through the information design stage to get started on the visual design. Discovering a site’s perfect information design is essential and not difficult to do if you create the right conditions for it.
WHAT IS INFORMATION DESIGN?
A site’s information design consists of three elements:
1. The pages on the site
2. The navigation systems that connect all of the pages
3. The elements that are on each page
What is not part of the information design is approved content and visual design. When planning your site’s information design, it is important to exclude any visual design elements. Your information design document should be as visually bland as possible, so as to neither limit the freedom of the designer once the project moves on to the design stage nor confuse the client (even if that client is you). At this stage, we are not talking about images, fonts, colors, relative proportions, or anything of the sort. In terms of copy, good old fashioned greeking is just fine in most cases. When discovering a page’s information design, it is not important whether or not the copy on the page is approved; all we care about is whether there will be copy and roughly how many paragraphs of it there will be.
This post is an excerpt from my book, “A Website That Works.”