Design II: Structure comes before design

Every building starts with a blueprint, an architect’s vision of the structure. The blueprint organizes space to ensure that its purpose is met – the number of rooms and bathrooms are all taken into account along with doorways, windows, hallways and electrical outlets. Without the blueprint, critical items would get missed or may not fit, and the integrity of the building would be compromised.
Websites are very similar - if the structure isn’t there and reinforced your website will collapse. Your site’s structure should be based on your business strategy. (See Design I: Making your site pretty can get ugly). The structure, or information architecture, is how your site is organized and following your business strategy ensures that nothing gets missed.

The major complaint of website users is “I can’t find anything!” Sound familiar? But the solution isn’t jumping into a redesign. The problem could stem from lack of meta data (e.g. keywords), poor naming conventions and taxonomy, out of date information, or poorly organized information. (For more on search read “ Search Engines don’t Suck They’re Just Limited”)
The solution involves finding out what users are looking for, what they can’t find and what they need – as well as having a clear understanding of the purpose of your site and what you are offering and why and how it all relates to your business objectives. Until you have a good understanding of the business requirements, coloring it blue just won’t solve the problem.

Site Design Strategy

Once you have a clear understanding of your user and business requirements, you need to develop your site design strategy. Your design strategy should be reflective of your business and communication objectives:
  • What is it that you want your website to do?
  • What do you need it to achieve?
  • What do you need to emphasize?
  • What are your organization’s brand rules and limitations?
Once you have clearly outlined your objective you can take a closer look at organizing your content to best meet your business requirements by understanding user behavior.

User Behavior and Organization of Information

You need to know your users and understand their behavior before you organize your information and design your site.

Intranet users:

Employees tend to use intranets to get corporate information and tools as needed. Information therefore needs to relate to tasks and must be easily accessible. You don’t necessarily want them spending a lot of time on the intranet but you want them to be familiar with it and to return to it. Intranet users want useful information that is reliable, relevant, and organized in a logical, intuitive manner. Focus on common tasks that employees need to complete by providing a convenient arrangement of information to accomplish the task quickly.

Internet users:

Internet users are either browsing, in which case you need to catch and keep their attention, or they are looking for something very specific and will search until they find it. If they can’t find it quickly they will move on. The goal is to maximize contact time, draw readers in, reward curiosity with interesting and/or entertaining information, motivate the user to stay – purchase, and then to return on a regular basis.

Goal for users:

So your goal for both intranet and Internet sites is to provide information that can be found quickly and categorize it appropriately.
  • On the intranet, categorize by task.
  • On the Internet, categorize by product or service.
Use interesting and motivating enticements (deals, contests, polls, etc.) to get and keep your users.

Cost/Profit Centers

Intranets are considered cost centers while websites are now expected to be profit centers (direct or indirect). Not surprisingly, consumer facing websites are taken more seriously and there is a commitment to keep them current and interesting; intranets, on the other hand, often struggle for success and resources.


Interactivity is good for both users and the host organization. On intranets there is an opportunity to collect information on employee satisfaction, collaboration, information sharing, training and development. On the Internet the most important interaction is the purchase of a product or service followed by subscriptions, and customer inquiries. Using feedback forms and FAQs, and involving users with contests, polls and surveys creates a positive experience that will keep users returning to the site.

Organization of information

“Information is a source of learning. But unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decision making, it is a burden, not a benefit.” - William Pollard

Information can be organized in hierarchical or linear formats. It can be based on departments (product or service lines) or tasks.


Hierarchical means that there is a parent page with multiple child pages which offers the user choice.

Linear or sequential allows the user to go forward and back. This is typical of slide shows and videos and, to some degree, games where a given path is preset.


Navigation can be ambiguous (topical, task oriented) or it can be exact (alphabetical, chronological, geographical). The best option is to use both ambiguous and exact types so that all your users will be able to find information in the way that they are most comfortable with.

Walk before you run

Before starting your site design, you need to formulate the website a structure— the information architecture details the information categories and relationships, and the navigation structure.

Information Architecture

An intranet example of a high level Information Architecture

A wireframe, or site schematic, can be drawn to show the basic skeleton of how information with be positioned.


Often when looking at the combined information architecture and wireframe, you can clearly see what you need to emphasize. Users scan websites. In the west we scan from left to right, top to bottom in a Z pattern. Our eye is attracted to design elements – color, photos, white space etc. We’re also reluctant to scroll, so the more you can entice users with content and design “above the fold” or within screen view, the better off your site.

Design isn’t simple. In order for it to be effective it needs to be based on a good foundation which takes into account user behavior and information organization. There are important differences between intranets and Internets but both ultimately need to deliver good content quickly — you can only do that if you’ve planned your information architecture to meet your business requirements. It’s not just enough to have a site, you need a site that users can find what they want on – and to do that, you need an information architecture based on strategy.

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Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10 years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.