Think Info

Exploring the information space

Information models: out with the old

Look at most web sites and intranets, and you will see an information structure based on a silo’d model. This is neither how we wish to communicate our message, nor how the end user is seeking to consume it. It is time to put an end to this fallacy.

There is a simple model used by the vast majority of web sites. This model has its roots in the early days of the internet, when sites were an accumulation of pages manually authored and managed. The organisation of paged was bases on a folder structure on someone’s computer. It made sense to keep information about various subjects together.

And, obviously, as the web site was visible to the outside world, as an electronic store front, it was also important that everything be available. Hence, when viewing your flagship product, there was navigation to lead the user off to some other service you offered. Because – obviously – they were going to be interested in that, too.

The silo'd site

This model was likewise picked up for corporate intranets. Every department needed its own space, within the larger network. Often behind a gate, so only department members had access, to each department head, their little fiefdom was the centre of the world. And everything needed to go on there. Intranets became vast wastelands of oh-so-important content. Web sites became unwieldy, with microsites branching off into their own domains.

This model emerged with the internet, in the late ’90s… a few decades after this model began its decline in the business world. It provided a resurgence of the importance of the departmental manager. What was included within a site did not depend on relevance or value, but was a manifestation of importance-by-page-count. Oh, those egos.

But how does the user want to consume our information?

The answer to this question depends on the type of user. Are they someone we already have a business relationship with? (One or two pages to get an answer or buy something new.) Are they someone who has heard about us or been referred, and looking for value and validation of what we can offer? (A couple of articles to demonstrate our authority, a quick scan of our offering to assure themselves that we have the goods too, and perhaps an honest testimonial.) Or are they a bargain-hunting browser? (Price check – are you cheaper than the competition? Gone.)

Where the user really wants to go

All these answers have one thing in common. In and out. Here and gone. It is a quick visit. A journey: from A to B.

That is what the user wants. That same user is going to employ a search engine to find what we have to offer. They don’t need a menu that serves up everything plus the kitchen sink: they need us to have optimised for search and provided a route through our information.

When it comes to intranets, the same problem is faced, though the solution is going to need to be differently modelled. The average intranet is a complete mess – countless pages of obsolete material, competing for attention in menus, often hidden beneath obscure (legal) terminology. When all the average user wants is to search: let the platform do the work. And they want relevant related content to be presented… which will of course lead to alternate challenges in the management side of things, but we will cover that another time.

Clearly, the silo’d tree structure is not optimised for the end user’s experience. Nor is it relevant to the way forward-thinking companies do business any more. It is time that we relegated the archaic, site-wide navigation model to a shelf in a museum. It is time that we embrace information presentation models that give the user what they are looking for, in a flexible format. Let us embrace user-centric rather than organisation-centric publishing.

Am I advocating removal of full navigation? Not quite, though definitely tucking it away; and I for one shall not lament the death of the fat footer.

It is not going to be easy to migrate to such a model. We will need content owners to adopt new mind sets, embrace new processes and appropriate platforms to enable it. But think of the benefits: information presented in the bite-size strings that the user wants to consume.

(And, yes… now I know you will move on elsewhere, done here.)

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