This is a fairly simple process I developed for departments at Barnard College to reorganize their websites. While the examples are specific to a college admissions website, I think the process is general enough that it could be applied to almost any website. It is written as a step-by-step procedure, which results in a full copydeck as an end product. Enjoy!
1. DEFINE GOALS
Defining the goals simply means stating what you want your website to accomplish. This is different from what you want the website to be able to do (which is what we call functionality). This exercise is to define what you want to happen when users visit your site, so first we must define who the users are.
The first step is to define and prioritize your audience(s). Who will be visiting your site?
Admissions may list high school students, transfers, international students, guidance counselors, and parents as potential audiences.
Once the audiences have been identified, prioritize them in order of importance in meeting your institutional objectives.
Admissions may prioritize their audiences based on the importance of addressing those particular groups:
1. high school students
2. international students
5. guidance counselors
A simpler method to prioritize them would be to divide the audiences into Primary and Secondary.
Admissions may consider high school students, international students, and transfers to be the Primary audience, while, parents and guidance counselors are a Secondary audience.
The second step is to list all of the expectations each audience will have when they visit the site. Why are they visiting your site? What do they want or need to accomplish? What are they looking to find? List expectations for each audience, beginning with the Primary audiences.
High school students visiting the site want to know the requirements for admission, the cost, financial aid opportunities, what courses of study are offered, what campus life is like, information about the school’s location, etc.
Now that you know who your visitors are and what they want from your site, it should be simple to state fairly detailed goals for the website, and prioritize them in order of importance.
Admissions may list as top goals
1. Prospectives, namely high school students, should be able to quickly find the key information they seek (requirements, cost, aid, majors), get a sense of campus life, and apply online;
2. Parents should be able to find the key information they seek (cost, aid, safety), get a sense of the student body, and easily share links to pages with their kids; etc.
As you will see, goals for different audiences will often overlap, which is a good thing. Now, with your goals clearly stated, you can begin to organize and categorize your content so that it best meets your objectives.
2. STRUCTURE CONTENT
Users should be able to easily and logically find the information they need and accomplish what they set out to do on your website. The ultimate goal is to arrange your site so that it anticipates the users’ needs and expectations. To accomplish this you must arrange and label information the way your audiences expect to see it, using the kind of terminology they will easily recognize.
The work you’ve done defining user expectations and goals should suggest some of the basic organizing concepts you will use to structure the content of your site. Since the expectations you listed are essentially what users are coming to your site to do or to learn about, it makes sense to create general categories from them that will enable users to quickly identify the path they want to follow. These general concepts will likely become (at least part of) your main navigation.
Admissions might draw several general categories from their list. Admission Requirements, Cost, Financial Aid, Courses of Study, Campus Life, Location, etc.
Once you have established some general categories, you will want to refine these into suitable labels your primary audience(s) will easily grasp and recognize. A common mistake is to use the language that your group or organization uses to describe itself, which may not be the way your users understand what your group does.
It is also important to be consistent in your labeling, such that your labels are all “of a kind.” This means that you avoid mixing labels that address topics (such as Requirements, Cost, Campus Life, Location) with labels that address audiences (Students, Parents, Counselors) or tasks (Apply Now, Sign Up, Download Application).
To the extent possible, grammatical consistency is advisable as well. This means avoiding a mix of labels that are titles (Cost, Financial Aid), actions (Apply, Visit), statements (Explore the Campus), and/or questions (How do I apply?).
In order to be consistent in their labeling, and using terms their primary audience (high school students) will understand, Admissions may refine their categories. Applying to Barnard, Areas of Study, Life on Campus, Paying for College, Living in New York City, etc.
Now that you have a general set of categories that you have refined into labels, you will want to take stock of all the content you have on your website. There are a number of ways to do this. The simplest method is to make a list of all the pages you have on your website with some description of what’s on those pages (if needed).
Through this process you may very likely find some pages you no longer need. In other instances you may find a need for pages that don’t exist. Add to your inventory all of the pages you wish to keep, along with all of the new pages you need to create (noted as pages to be created). Any pages you no longer need should be left aside.
Applying to Barnard [category]
Selection Criteria [page]
Profile of the Class of 2013 [page]
SAT and ACT Scores [page]
Frequently Asked Questions [page]
First Year Students [page]
Transfer Students [page]
Visiting Students [page]
International Students [page]
Areas of Study [category]
A Liberal Arts Education [page]
The Nine Ways of Knowing [page to be created]
Majors & Course Catalog [page]
Barnard-Juilliard Exchange [page]
Centennial Scholars [page]
Jewish Theological Seminary [page]
Manhattan School of Music [page]
Programs with Columbia [page]
Life on Campus [category]
Profiles of Current Students [page]
Diversity on Campus [page]
Once this list is complete, go through each item and assign it to the general category (label) to which it most logically fits. Don’t force a page into a category if it doesn’t make sense. Leave those pages unassigned for now.
Some pages may appear to belong in more than one category. Simply assign it to the category in which your primary audience is mostly likely to seek it. Then make a note in the other categories to which it is associated, “link to X page.” This will serve as a reminder to create a related contextual link to the specific page in other sections of the site.
As you are assigning pages to categories, you will see that this is taking the form of an outline, which is actually a great structure to adopt as you are organizing your content. If you have a large website, you may find that some categories are too large to be manageable. In this instance, you will want to create subcategories within that large category. If you are using the form of an outline, this is really easy to do.
A. Applying to Barnard [category]
1. Requirements [subcategory]
a. Selection Criteria [page]
b. Profile of the Class of 2013 [page]
c. SAT and ACT Scores [page]
d. Frequently Asked Questions [page]
2. Applications [subcategory]
a. First Year Students [page]
b. Transfer Students [page]
c. Visiting Students [page]
d. International Students [page]
B. Areas of Study [category]
1. A Liberal Arts Education [page]
2. The Nine Ways of Knowing [page]
3. Majors & Course Catalog [page]
4. Partner Schools [subcategory]
a. Barnard-Juilliard Exchange [page]
b. Centennial Scholars [page]
c. Jewish Theological Seminary [page]
d. Manhattan School of Music [page]
e. Programs with Columbia [page]
C. Life on Campus [category]
1. Profiles of Current Students [page]
2. Diversity on Campus [page]
3. Athletics [page]
Now take all of the pages that have not been assigned to a category. Do they share any common content, features, or unifying concepts? Could they be grouped into their own category? If so, you may want to add this category to the others, assuming it seems reasonable to do so.
Of the remaining pages that don’t fit into an existing category and can’t be grouped into their own category, take a close look at these and ask how important are these pages? Do they belong on your site? Could parts of them be added to pages that are already assigned elsewhere? If they aren’t easily assigned to one of your categories, there’s a very good chance they don’t belong on your site, or that they can be integrated elsewhere.
Take a final look at your categories and content inventory. Is this everything? Anything missing?
3. ADD CONTENT
The final step is to add your content to your outline. This means copying all of the text and links on your existing website and pasting them into your outline. This also includes adding text and links for pages that didn’t previously exist, as well as moving pieces of content from one page to another. For images, video, and other new media, simply make notes where these should be inserted on the page. Also be sure to note any related links to other sections of the site.
A. Applying to Barnard [category]
1. Requirements [subcategory]
a. Selection Criteria [page]
The Committee on Admissions selects young women of proven academic strength who exhibit the potential for further intellectual growth. In addition to their high school records, recommendations, and standardized test scores, the candidates’ special abilities and interests are also given careful consideration. While admission is highly selective, no one criterion determines acceptance. Each applicant is considered in terms of her individual qualities of mind and spirit and her potential for successfully completing the course of study at Barnard.
Barnard seeks students from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds and from all geographic regions. The College admits students and administers its financial aid and loan programs, educational policies and programs, recreational programs, and other College programs and activities without regard to race, color, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability, etc.
Adding content to the outline is a great opportunity to edit, rewrite, refresh, and/or reconsider your existing content. Rather than simply copying and pasting, take some time to review the text you have (and test your links, spell-check, grammar-check, etc.) to be sure it is conveying the right messages. This process will also help you simplify and shorten pages that are too long or too wordy. If it doesn’t fit on one page of a word document, it’s probably not going to fit on one screen-view of a website, which means you may be asking your users to do a lot of scrolling.
Once all of your content is organized into your outline, you are ready to start building the new pages of your website.
NOTE: The examples used in this guide are from work I performed helping Barnard College’s Admissions department reorganize and re-envision their website.