An Introduction to Information Architecture

In my post about our minimalist approach to the web, I said that you should respect your users’ time by only providing them with essential information, and by guiding them through your website in a helpful way.

The best way to do this is by having good information architecture.

Information architecture is about deciding how something is organised. It’s not just about where your content is, it’s about the placement and design of that content, and what message that sends to your users.

I think the best way to explain this is with an example…


In this example from the old Faculty of Medical Sciences website, five postgraduate taught programmes appear as sub-menu items in the sidebar, while the rest appear as bulleted list items on the page.

An example of bad information architecture, from the Faculty of Medical Sciences website.

Some degree programmes appear as menu items in the left-hand navigation, others appear as links in the main body of the page.

In reality, there is no significant difference between these programmes, but the way they’re organised gives a false impression of hierarchy. It ascribes importance to the ones in the sidebar. Users could leave this page with the impression that the faculty values the programmes in the sidebar more highly than the ones in the list.

Here is the same page on the new Faculty of Medical Sciences website.

An example of good information architecture, from the Faculty of Medical Sciences website.

All degree programmes appear as links in the main body of the page. The list is separated by subject and ordered alphabetically.

All of the taught programmes are now listed in alphabetical order in the main part of the page. They all look equally important and they’re easier for the user to navigate.

The links take the user to the central postgraduate website. This fits in with our university-wide web strategy; creating a seamless browsing experience and ensuring that the user will receive the most accurate and appropriate course information.

For another example of how information architecture works, read Understanding information architecture via my bookshelf.

Benefits of good information architecture

Good information architecture aids the user journey. It helps people to navigate through your site in a way that makes sense, before arriving at the information they’re looking for.

Bad information architecture hinders the user journey. It confuses people by providing the wrong information at the wrong time, in the wrong place.

Information architecture also helps control the interpretation of your content, and communicate what you intend.

Websites with good information architecture are better for users because:

  • content is presented in a more useful and meaningful way
  • information is given at the appropriate point in the browsing experience
  • the browsing experience easier, more enjoyable and more intuitive

Websites with good information architecture also makes it easier to keep your website up to date, because new content can find a sensible home.

Next time

In my next post, I’ll be looking at the three elements of information architecture, and how they work together to create a great user experience.

I’ll also outline how you can create and maintain good information architecture using the tools we’ve given you.

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5 Reasons to Limit Video Content on your Site

As we take more sites through Go Mobile we’ve been removing quite a few video pages. We get asked a lot why we consider videos to be supplementary content on websites, and why we discourage a page containing only video content.

In this post I’m going to share five reasons why I think you should limit video content on your site.

1. Videos can be time consuming

People read differently online – they scan and dedicate less time, and often come to a website to find the answer to a question.

They are looking for a bridge for that information gap. They want to get over that bridge as quickly as possible.

Gerry McGovern

Videos are not the quickest bridge to information because, as Amy Schade (Nielsen Norman Group) points out, “they force users to access the content sequentially”. This means that users can’t quickly scan the information to see if it will be relevant to them  like they could with text.

If we rely solely on video content to convey our primary messages we run the risk of burying them. Users might not watch a video to the end, or worse, they might not watch it at all. In our new responsive template videos don’t play automatically, giving the user control over what they view.

As Amy Shade argues, users should “have the ability to collect information in another way”.

If using videos on your site you should always ensure that your primary message is also presented in text so that users can access it quickly.

2. Videos are not always accessible

When using video content you need to be mindful of accessibility.

Providing content as a video can limit access to the information contained in this format for anyone who cannot see or hear the content.

Amy Schade, Nielsen Norman Group

Is video the most appropriate medium to convey information to your target audience? For example, if one of your target audiences is from a country where Youtube is not available, relying on videos to provide information means that your audience can’t access it.

Videos can also break or be removed from the channel they’re hosted on.

3. Videos can distract from your core content

As well as videos being time consuming they can also interrupt the flow of your core content.

Video and the accompanying audio, can confuse or distract users”.

Amy Schade, Nielsen Norman Group

On mobile devices videos can take longer to scroll through as they stack to fill the smaller screen.

Since videos are potentially distracting users from your core messages, it’s important to think carefully about when and where to use them on your webpages.

4. Videos can slow the page load

Videos, like images and virtual tours, can slow the load time for your webpage. If users can’t access your information quickly they can become frustrated and leave your site.

5. Videos often don’t provide a next step

As well as coming to the web to find something out, users often come to a website to complete a task. There is a danger with videos just to tell a story rather than provide information with a call to action.

“Many videos are essentially dead ends that leave the user with no clear path to additional information.”

Amy Schade, Nielsen Norman Group

This supports my argument that videos are usually supplementary content on websites. They should sit alongside your core content to provide context or qualifying information rather than being relied on to provide essential next steps in the user journey.

Final thoughts

I’m not trying to say videos are not useful content. Do I believe they are more suitable in other mediums, such as social media? Absolutely. Like Gerry McGovern, I believe that a website is still “primarily a text-driven medium”.

However, I can also see the benefits of videos on a website. Like other dynamic content, videos can be engaging and can help break up blocks of text. They also provide context and qualifiers to support your core messages.

It’s essential though that we use this content type sparingly on websites to maximise impact, and to ensure that we’re not excluding, distracting or annoying our users.

Remember, there isn’t much time to grab the user’s attention on the web, it’s best to present your primary messages as quickly and as clearly as possible.

References and further reading

Amy Schade, Video Usability, Nielsen Norman Group (NNg), 16 November 2014

Gerry McGovern, Text is more important than images on the Web, New Thinking, 26 September 2010

Gerry McGovern, The Challenge for Writers of Web Content, New Thinking, 24 May 2015

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Making Research Readable for All

Journalists learn early that if you can’t explain your story simply – you don’t know it well enough.

It’s the old adage from experienced editors. It’s a rallying call for plain English and making the complex easy to understand.

Plain English and readability are key in getting your message across, whether your audience are esteemed academics or laypersons.

Fear of ‘dumbing down’

Some research academics break into a sweat over this. It’s as if making research understandable to all is ‘dumbing down’. But researchers often do themselves a disservice with their ‘impenetrable’ web content.

The recent Research Excellence Framework review by Lord Stern recommends research impact case studies provide evidence of public engagement and understanding.

You can achieve this with your website content. It’s also a way to attract non-traditional sources of funding. But explaining your work in 65-word sentences laden with verbose language won’t help.

Have the courage to speak plainly

I’m not saying it’s easy to write about technical research. It’s almost impossible to get away from some subject-specific jargon.

But there are ways of delivering easy-to-read research. And that’s without ‘dumbing down’ and patronising your peers.

Writing actively, in tight concise sentences is a start. Bulleted lists and bold to highlight key messages are also good ideas.

The Art of Scannable Content: How to Write for Today’s Online Readers and our blog are great for writing tips.

Use Hemingway App to help you. It allows you to play around with your words to get the best readability score.

Just doing this, without removing technical jargon, will help anyone read your content.

Don’t hide your research behind vocabulary

Don’t just stop at sentence size, structure and scannable content. You’re only half way there.

“All too often, research is hidden behind a vocabulary that is overly technical and disengaging, but there are ways to avoid that.”

Cracking the code for effective research communication, where this quote comes from, gives excellent advice on steps researchers can take to engage web audiences.

Always put forward how your research impacts on everyday life. Also think about whether you need jargon to tell people what it’s about.

Five minutes with Mark Blyth: “Turn it into things people can understand, let go of the academese, and people will engage” is useful. Academic Mark Blyth gives insight into his success through promoting his research online.

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Best practice example: mastheads

Each batch we put through the go live process has examples of excellent content. In this new series of blog posts, we’ll use these to highlight best practice examples.

Last time we looked at using grid boxes for section openers. This time I want to show you three different examples of best practice for mastheads.


Like grid boxes, mastheads are used for section openers. These are pages that give an introduction for a particular section (eg Research, Study with Us, About Us).

They help create visual hierarchy, and so should only be used for top level sections of your site (the pages that appear in the side menu when you’re on the homepage).

Example one: Accommodation

masthead on the Accommodation website

This example is from the Accommodation website. It uses a masthead page to give a brief introduction to the section, and point users towards some key pages.

Mastheads work well in places where you want to give a teaser for the section, but not go into too much detail.

At a glance, users can see how to get to key information.

The image gives a visual clue about the content of the section. It shows students who look like they really do live in the accommodation, rather than visiting for the first time.

We’ve prioritised the information, providing links to some of the core pages for current students – how to extend your stay, swap or transfer your room, and what to do at the end of your contract.

We’ve also added a sub-heading to introduce a sub-set of key information: how the Accommodation service can support students after first year. This quickly introduces a new topic that they might not have heard about, and shows them where to find more information.

Example two: Careers

masthead on the Careers website

This longer example is from the Careers website. It uses a masthead page to give a more comprehensive overview of the section.

The image links very clearly to the title of the page. The shape of the photo also leaves enough space for the title box.

The sub-headings give a clear indication of how the section can help the user, and help to direct the user to appropriate information quickly and easily.

Although there is more text in this example, the page has been structured in a way that supports it. There are clear links to all pages within the section and the sub-headings work well to help users scan for information.

Hyperlinks are also used very well in this example. They’re placed at the end of sentences, which supports visitors using mobile devices. They’re not all clumped together, which would make them difficult to use on a mobile.

Example three: Postgraduate

masthead on the Postgraduate website

This last example is from the Postgraduate website. It uses a masthead page to support longer text and more information.

Mastheads can also be a good option if pages in the section have very specific information, and you need a catch-all page to introduce key information that won’t appear on the other pages.

There is a lot of text on this page, but users are directed to core pages by two, clear hyperlinks. Scanning is supported through short paragraphs, and bold phrases.

To improve scannability even more, we could introduce some sub-headings and bullet lists to break up the text, add white space and support scanning.

You can also support the text by using other content pieces, such as images, videos or quotes. The quotes in this example help to break up the text, and they’re relevant to the main content. They help to quickly support the message of the section.

Learn more

You’ll learn how to create and manage these pages in our T4 training sessions.

If you’re stuck, we can help you work out what format will work best for your navigational pages.

Have a look at :

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Best practice example: grid boxes

We’re often asked for examples of really good websites. The thing is, each site is different, depending on the type of site, their users, and their needs. Websites constantly evolve due to changing user needs, business goals or time-sensitive messaging.

So there’s not really one static best practice example that ticks all the boxes for everyone.

What we can do is point you in the direction of really good content usage to take inspiration from.

Each batch we put through the go live process has examples of excellent content. In this new series of blog posts, we’ll use these to highlight best practice examples.

Here’s a couple of examples of best practice for grid boxes from recent Go Mobile batches.

Grid boxes

Grid boxes are used for homepages and section openers. These are pages that give an introduction for a particular section (eg Research, Study with Us, About Us).

They help create visual hierarchy, so users can easily see where they are in your site. Because of this, they should only be used for top level sections of your site (the pages that appear in the side menu when you’re on the homepage).

boxes on the Study with Us section of the Malaysia campus website

Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia Study With Us section

This example is from Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia. It uses our ‘top task box – dark’ content piece.

This is basically four links, but presented in a visual, structured way. Visitors can immediately see what’s on offer. This is a good option when you want to give a quick overview of different services, for example.

For this Study with Us section, it was important that we had clear pathways signposted for four key groups of users: undergraduates, postgraduates, international students, and parents.

We wanted each group to feel catered for, supported, and have easy access to pages that would help them.

You can have some text above grid boxes. Keep it short, and don’t add any if it’s not needed. The boxes should take centre stage, and do a quick job of moving users on to core pages.

boxes on the Study with Us section of the Mechanical Engineering website

Mechanical Engineering Study With Us section

This example is from the School of Mechanical and Systems Engineering. It uses our ‘top task box – light’ content piece.

This box type gives you the option to include some hyperlinks (max. 4) below the image and main link. It’s a good option for pages where you know there are several core pages that you want to highlight.

In this example, we wanted to signpost prospective students towards the undergraduate pages, but knew that they’re likely to want to know about courses and funding in particular.

Light top task boxes are great for larger sections where you want to direct users explicitly to core pages.

Think about what the key messages for the section are, and what your user is looking for. Work out what are core areas (give them boxes), key pages within these areas (give them links), and what is additional information (don’t link them from your section opener).

Your additional information pages (in this case, the Careers page) will always be available within the section via the menu.

Learn more

You’ll learn how to create and manage these pages in our T4 training sessions. And you’ll find out how to identify your core pages in our training on planning web content.

If you’re stuck, we can help you work out what format will work best for your navigational pages, and help you with setting up grid layouts.

Have a look at :

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