Digital Marketing

What’s on the Menu?

by Ben McRae

A poorly organized event or association website impedes visitors, wasting their time and increasing the chance they leave without registering, joining or otherwise consuming the content for which they’re hungry. The art and science of website organization is called information architecture (IA), and it’s one of the most important elements of a site build or redesign. Here are some of the IA rules mdg applies to help ensure our clients’ site visitors don’t leave with a bad taste in their mouths.

Use the tools of the trade.
The end product of the IA process is a sitemap, a flowchart-like diagram that visually demonstrates page hierarchy. Think of a sitemap like the menu at a restaurant: The headings (Appetizers, Salads, etc.) represent the top-level pages on a site, and the food items listed underneath represent their subpages. There are lots of free drag-and-drop tools online for building and exporting sitemaps, including cacoo.com, creately.com and gliffy.com.

Too many cooks…
Nearly everything your event or association offers ends up on your website in some way, so it’s only natural that several players in your organization will want to weigh in. While it’s important to receive input from multiple stakeholders, it’s much more effective to let a smaller group with a sense of the bigger picture consolidate feedback and lead the charge. After conducting a proper discovery process, there should be plenty of data with which to create a sitemap first draft.

Don’t let the customer see how the sausage gets made.
It’s a classic mistake, especially among associations, to organize one’s site menu along department lines: membership, publications, events, etc. But just as you wouldn’t organize a restaurant’s menu based on which chefs prepare each meal, it usually doesn’t make sense to silo content based on who produces it. Instead, choose your top-level menu items by identifying the different reasons users might visit your site: to obtain resources, to make a purchase or to advocate for a cause, for example.

Manage your portions.
While many restaurants favor big portions, on the web it’s best to keep the extra weight off. Five or six top-level pages on your menu bar are plenty; additional items can create confusion and engender design challenges, especially as they relate to keeping pages mobile-friendly. To mitigate the portions issue, many sites include utility navigation—a less prominent menu above the main menu that captures pages that are more practical than content-oriented: Log In, Contact Us, About, etc.

Know the staples, but spice things up.
Most menus are organized basically the same way: starters near the front, entrees in the middle, and desserts last. Likewise, sites with similar purposes, like sites for trade shows, tend to share similar top-level menu items: Registration, Schedule, Exhibitor Information, etc. Unless there is compelling data to suggest otherwise, there’s no reason to reinvent the IA wheel. Still, there are ways to get creative. Most restaurants feature appetizers, but depending on their audience and the ethos they aim to project, they might title them “starters,” “hors d’oeuvres,” or “antipasto.” Similarly, feel free to experiment with different audience-appropriate language to convey familiar ideas—just as long as doing so doesn’t obscure the purpose of the menu item in question.

Like restaurant patrons, site visitors only notice menu organization when it becomes an obstacle. At mdg, we use these IA guidelines to put the thought in—so that our clients’ users don’t have to.