Once you’ve established the purpose of your website, and who will be using it, you can start to plan the basic structure of the site, which will determine the all-important site navigation system.
Too many sites reflect the internal politics of the committee that created them — don’t let yours fall into this trap! The structure of the site should reflect the perspective of your target audience, not your own internal organization. If you have identified several audiences (e.g. investors, customers, employees) you may need to offer different paths through the site to help them find what they need.
So your next job is to create a structure which will support the site’s objectives. Always keep in mind that visitors to your site are looking for information. Its purpose should be immediately obvious, and it should be easy to navigate. Great content is no use if people can’t find it!
The first thing you need to do is to establish a “content inventory” by asking yourself two questions:
- What sort of information are my visitors looking for? Remember different audiences may have different requirements.
- What will visitors want to do? This could include buying goods, searching for information, personalising content, signing up for a newsletter …
Make a list of all the ideas you come up with, if necessary categorized by audience. Then check that these ideas are consistent with the goals of the site — throw out any that aren’t. The next step is to take all these elements and organize them into a logical structure. Use whatever means you are comfortable with for this — it might be a flowchart, a mind map diagram, or even a collection of index cards which you can shuffle about on a table and divide into piles representing different sections of the site. It can also be helpful to visualize your site using a metaphor — for example, if you are selling groceries, a supermarket is an obvious organizational model. It’s a good idea to involve people from different parts of your organization in this process — they will bring valuable perspectives which you may have overlooked.
Once you are happy with your structure, draw up a formal site plan and get everyone involved to agree on it. This document will ultimately determine the basic navigational structure which will be used for every page on the site. You (or your designer) will also be able to use it to create a list of all the pages which need to be created, and the elements they must include. This list will later be used to allocate tasks and manage the development process.
The major navigation elements of the site should now be obvious. For example, you have probably identified major sections of the site which should be accessible from every page. If the site is quite small, this may be all the navigation you need. If you have a deep, many-layered structure, you will probably want to add a sub-menu of items specific to each section, to avoid cluttering every page with a confusing mass of options.
A well-defined site structure means you know from the outset what the scope of the project is, and it makes designing consistent page layouts and templates a much easier task. In the long run, it will simplify maintenance and updating of the site, so you can keep content fresh and add new features in response to customer demand without busting your budget. Result — more happy customers and a boost to your bottom line!