In early 2003 I was assigned the task of completely rebuilding the BDO Canada website. As with many first generation corporate sites, the site had a ton of traffic, but had a very large bounce rate. Customers surveys revealed that users were confused by the tremendous amount of information on the site, and the lack of consistency in the navigation.

Once the new site was launched, BDO noted a large decrease in the bounce rate, and a significant increase in page views/visit and time spent on the site.

Developing Great Information Architecture

Using the BDO Canada site as an example, I’ve listed out all of the steps that I take to develop a comprehensive and effective IA for any website.

Website Audiences

In order to help develop an architecture that will make sense, it’s critical that you understand who the site is intended for. Does the site need to speak to a technical audience, or a layperson? Is the site providing information to existing customers, or is the site focused on creating new ones?

In BDO Canada’s case, all of these audiences needed to be catered to. Knowing this ensured that the site content was bucketed in a way that allowed these user groups to find what they were looking for quickly. Working with key stakeholders allowed me to develop a comprehensive list of audiences and their needs, ensuring that I knew who the site needed to cater to.

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Content Inventory

Content is king online, and BDO’s website had over 1000 pages of it. When redeveloping the IA for any website, cataloging all existing content is a critical step that I usually do first. There are several benefits to doing this.

As I click through the site to create the list of all of the content, I invariably gain an understanding of the types of content on the site, the purpose of the content and what usability issues users are contending with. More importantly, reading or skimming the content when creating the lists allows me to become familiar with the organisation itself.

For the BDO project, I used a spreadsheet that identified each webpage on the site. The spreadsheet listed the name of each page, and provided a small description of the page content. The spreadsheet also identified the page audience(s),  the purpose and or business goal of the page itself.

Note: When I do this exercise now, I use tools like Trello, as then I have cards already built that I can sort.

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Card Sorting

Once a comprehensive list of content has been established, all of the content titles are moved onto cards (analog or digitally) so that they can be organized into buckets that makes the most sense. For this exercise, I try to get access to potential audiences, as well as stakeholders. If I’m working with a group, I act as a facilitator to ensure that the content is grouped based on hierarchy and user need. Often in large organizations, stakeholders attempt to prioritize their content and business objectives over others.

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Site Map and Navigation

Once I have enough input from users/stakeholders about what content is important and how they would like to have it bucketed, I create the site map. The sitemap outlines the hierarchical structure for the entire site and details of how the navigation will be structured. As part of this step, I will suggest language changes for page titles, and also highlight possible content or information deficiencies that could be beneficial for the site. This is usually the last approval required before moving on to prototyping, design and development.

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Conclusion

So there you have it, all of the steps I used to improve the information architecture, and thus the usability and conversion of BDO Canada’s web site. Despite BDO.ca going through several functional and design overhauls in the past 13 years, the IA I developed for them is still intact.