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The challenges of audience and task based navigation

I read an interesting article recently by content specialist and top tasks evangelist, Gerry McGovern. It was a commentary on a blog post recently written by a member of the UK Digital Govenrment Service (GDS) in which they outlined why they were moving away from an audience based approach to navigation and towards a single, topic based hierarchy for the website. This set me thinking about our website and how the University is organised.

In a nutshell, Gerry wholeheartedly agreed with this change in strategy, and outlined examples from his work which supported the thinking.

In their blog, the GDS say:

This emphasis on a single unified list represents a shift in our thinking over time. Previously we’d assumed that we needed separate taxonomies for different groups of users and different types of content (mainstream/specialist/policy). We now think a single taxonomy which includes all content and meets the needs of all users will make it easier for users to get to the content they need, and for publishers to classify their content.

Gerry comments:

In 20 years of doing navigation design I’ve gone from strong proponent of audience / group / persona based navigation to harsh critic. This approach is great in theory and intuitively it feels right, but I can’t remember a situation where it worked well in practice.

Gerry McGovern’s article: The benefits of a single task-driven classification / navigation

Government Digital Service blog post: Developing a subject-based taxonomy for GOV.UK

Our approach and guidance

This set me thinking about the advice we give to the University about organising website structures and navigation.

We’ve been advising audience based navigation for years too, unless a task was common to all or most audiences. Should we, or more to the point, are we capable of changing our approach?

Becoming more user focused

In the 10 years I’ve been at the University of Edinburgh, we’ve slowly become more user focused. But have we really achieved that much? We’ve extolled the virtues of organising websites by user needs rather than organisational structure, but I’d argue that really it’s just the organisation that has evolved somewhat. We’re still structuring websites primarily by organisational structure, it’s just that some areas of the organisational structure have become more centred around particular priority audience groups. For example, we often see offices dedicated to postgraduates or undergraduates, or researchers. And as such, we see corresponding websites being created.

But away from organisational units – like in the central website – there are significant challenges to maintaining a team of subject specialists from across the institution who actively curate areas of shared content. It takes tremendous drive and energy to maintain a virtual team focus on enhancing a user experience that typically cuts across multiple organisational units.


Because colleagues managing the online content are rarely dedicated web comms people. They have other responsibilities and priorities. They’re typically appraised by metrics relating to their organisational unit, and not by the value they add to a user experience which is not owned, or is at best, shared. So understandably, when the pressure is on, priorities are typically focused back on the needs of the individual’s business unit.

New collaborations

So could we switch to an audience agnostic, top task approach? Optimising priority user experiences ahead of individual business unit goals? Not yet, I’d suggest. Or at least not much. Our organisational culture and focus is still developing in this regard. But it is developing and this is heartening, giving me great optimism for the coming years.

We’re about to embark on a collaboration with Student Systems which will be tackling this issue to some degree. So it’ll be interesting to see how much success we can achieve in pulling together a group of contributors from a range of support units to enhance areas of central provision for current staff and students, and evolve the individual business unit websites that sit ‘below’ in the overall website structure.

I’m in no doubt about the advances we will make through this initiative. The real challenge will come in embedding the change as an ongoing and sustained process. It’s a challenge we’re looking forward to taking on.

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