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Revisiting our Information Architecture Guidelines

Building a new Web Publishing Platform for the University has presented the opportunity to re-evaluate the ways we structure and organise content in our websites.

Our Information Architecture (IA) Guidelines are intended to document our approach to structuring our information environments. They also help web publishers make decisions about the way their website content is ordered, labelled and presented to end-users – to enable those users to find their way around and find what they need to complete their tasks.

What is Information Architecture?

Information Architecture (IA) is a discipline focused on making information environments findable and understandable. To this end, the information architecture for a given environment comprises systems, schemes and structures to achieve the following:

  • Organisation – categorisation and taxonomy of the information (or content)
  • Labelling – representation of the information
  • Navigation – for users to browse and move through the information
  • Search – for users to look for information

(from ‘Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond’ (2015) fourth edition by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville and Jorge Arango).

Depending on the nature of content or information in a given environment, (such as a web estate) the exact composition of an IA will vary, however, all IAs need cater for ‘top-down’ as well as ‘ground-up’, as Rosenfeld, Morville and Arango put it:

Effective information environments strike a balance between structural coherence (high-level invariance) and suppleness (low-level flexibility) so well-designed information architectures consider both – Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond’, (2015) p20

University of Edinburgh Information Architecture Guidelines

Version 3 of the University of Edinburgh Information Architecture Guidelines was published in September 2013 when EdWeb came into being.

Information Architecture wiki page (University log in required)

Key points of the IA Guidelines 2013

Four information architecture principles formed the foundation for the guidelines. These were as follows:

  1. Navigational consistency – When an item in a navigational panel is selected the contents of the navigational panel should not change (items shouldn’t vanish no new items appear)
  2. Navigation within the website interface – Everything the user needs to interact with should be present and obvious in the interface
  3. Avoid choice overload – Any one navigational panel or grouping of links should not contain more than nine choices (with defined exceptions)
  4. Clear page purpose – Be clear about what you want to achieve with a page and stick to it (pages categorised as: navigational, summary, content)

Also included in the guidelines was a synopsis of the types of information-seeking behaviours adopted by users – that the IA needed to support. These included:

  • Known item seeking
  • Exploratory seeking
  • Don’t know what they need to know seeking
  • Re-finding seeking

Four modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them (Donna Spencer, Boxes and Arrows blog)

The guidelines also included:

  • Advice on structuring content led by business and user goals, audiences and associated tasks
  • Rules for usage of key University website elements
  • Page layout options for a range of page types (e.g. homepages)

What’s not changed since the 2013 IA Guidelines were published

The guidelines were based on robust information architecture knowledge, and much of this is as valid now as it was 2013. For example, the categories of information seeking behaviour are still characteristic of the behaviours people adopt when they use University websites. The four principles still have a role to play in ensuring information in the web estate is findable and understandable. There is still a need to structure content in a task-led way to ensure a user-centred experience, and there is a need to define rules for the usage of website components and page layouts to achieve an experience which users find consistent and coherent.

The University web publishing model remains the same as it was in 2013, with content being published on websites in a devolved or distributed fashion across different Schools, Colleges and departments. Content design skills and experience are very varied across the University, and the more content produced, the more overhead there is to maintain it and the greater the risk of there being ‘information overload’ for site visitors attempting to find content to complete their tasks.

What has changed since the 2013 IA Guidelines were published

The IA principles set out in 2013 have largely been adopted across the University web estate, however, there are instances where guidelines have not been followed – for example, there are instances where more than nine menu links have been grouped together, breaking the ‘Avoid choice overload’ principle.

Updated IA research and best practice

Since 2013, more research has been completed in the field of IA and navigation, and more detail on best practices has been published by experts, including Dan Brown (2018), Gerry McGovern (2018) and Carlos Yllobre (2020).

Additional IA principles which have resonance with the University web estate have come to light. Three such principles (described by Dan Brown, 2018) include:

  • Principle of growth: Assume the content you have today is a small fraction of the content you will have tomorrow.
  • Principle of exemplars: Describe the contents of categories by showing examples of the contents.
  • Principle of front doors: Assume at least half of the website’s visitors will come through some page other than the home page.

Read more in: Eight Principles of Information Architecture blog post by Dan Brown (2018)

Seven principles of effective digital navigation by Gerry McGovern (2018)

The 4 principles of navigation. A simple guide for product teams by Carlos Yllobre (2020)

Challenges experienced with the existing navigational structure

The EdWeb navigational structure means there are limited options for signposting content to site visitors as they first encounter a site – the left-hand menu structure presents items in a nested way and the on-page navigation elements can only display so many options before introducing the need to scroll. The nested structure means it is difficult to know what a site contains. Some menu items lead to single pages, others to whole sections. Content and sections can be hidden, and site visitors can’t tell how deep they need to go for content until they start drilling down into menus.

For those editing University websites, it is very easy to publish content and forget about it as it can become buried in deeper levels. Due to the lack of flexibility and limited options to highlight new content,  new content tends to be added as pages to the bottom of hierarchies, resulting in very lengthy, linear menus. With more and more pages published, there is a constant and growing need for editorial resource to keep pages updated and avoid out-of-date, stale content (as identified by the Content Audit completed in 2020). This sort of surplus content also means more ‘noise’ for site visitors to contend with as they try to get to important content to complete their tasks.

From a technical perspective, the customised nature of the EdWeb navigation has restricted possibilities for further development and iterative improvement in a sustainable way using open-source Drupal.

Read the blog about the findings of the Content Audit completed in 2020: Content Audit Findings and the 100k Challenge

Changing trends in competitor university websites

Digital content in the realm of Higher Education has shifted, aligned with changes in modes of course and programme delivery and new flexible studying models. Websites of universities have needed to adapt and evolve to meet the changing expectations of their audiences. A recent review of a selection of national and international websites revealed many sites use megamenus to showcase site contents, and adopt strategies to connect and present related pieces of content.

Where does the Web Publishing Platform project come in?

The new platform presented the opportunity to update the University’s information architecture approach, to address the current challenges, offer more flexible options for publishing and presenting web content, and to ensure the content that is produced is manageable and sustainable. Information Architecture has been on the WPP roadmap from the beginning, and it is a big piece of work. It is not just a question of updating the guidelines and rolling out some new rules for site editors, it requires work from both the ‘top-down’ and ‘ground-up’ perspectives. As for all our work within the project, we’ve approached the IA work adopting the Agile methodology and Scrum framework, meaning we’ve broken it down into tasks for completion over a series of sprints.

Work on local navigation: menus and navigation within University websites

From research, we identified megamenus as a possible solution for site-level navigation. Megamenus display menu items in a wide dropdown panel or overlay and therefore provide an effective overview of what a site visitor can expect to find.

We wanted to validate our assumptions that people could use a megamenu to find site content and navigate to defined site destinations, so we ran a test to compare how people used a megamenu to complete tasks with how they used a left-hand menu to complete the same tasks. The test showed that people could use the megamenu as intended, and for some tasks, using the megamenu resulted in quicker task completion. With the concept proved, we implemented megamenus in sites migrated to the new platform in 2022. We then sought to iterate, to build a megamenu solution that would work for some of our bigger, more complex sites. Recognising the change the move from a left-hand menu to a megamenu would have for site owners and publishers, we have begun work on guidance and best practice around megamenu use, and our Content Migration Liaison Assistant, Nick Bush helped us develop a tool to visualise megamenus and experiment with them.

Read more in our blogs about megamenus and navigation:

Comparing a megamenu to a left-hand menu in task-based scenarios using Figma and Maze

Implementing and evolving a megamenu in the Web Publishing Platform

From left-hand menus to megamenus – our visualisation tool

The bigger picture – the University web estate as a whole

Considering the ‘top-down’ aspect of IA development, the new platform will include unique root-level sites, rather than sites which are part of a bigger site (as in current EdWeb). This model has been applied to the sites already migrated.

Read about the web address change in the blog post: The big move – update on moving to our new Web Publishing Platform

View list of migrated sites on the Website and Communications website

We have begun ideating and mapping out wider information architecture and navigation pieces of work, including:

  • Navigation pathways, signposts and labelling to take users between root-level sites (e.g. School and College websites and the main University website)
  • Defining relationships between root-level sites and their child sites
  • Rules and guidance for editors to organise and structure site content with new and existing navigation components for a consistent, coherent approach

Our longer-term IA plans

As we continue to work in an Agile, iterative way, working through tasks in series of sprints, our information architecture will continue to take shape. We’ll continue to document our progress and our learnings along the way to ultimately form an updated set of Information Architecture Guidelines for the University.

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