A website’s information architecture (IA) is the structure of the site. The IA is often referred to as the navigation, though the term navigation can also refer to other means of moving around the site, including additional highlighted links on a page (or in the footer), featured link lists, search, etc.
Think of the IA as a family tree where the first generation is the top-level navigation on the homepage. Those top-level pages have sub-pages, as do the sub-pages, and so on. A site map shows where each page “lives” in the IA and the hierarchy of pages within the site.
General IA principles and tactics
1. Navigation should not reflect the institution’s organizational chart.
Navigation should be designed to further the goals of the site. It should present information in a way that people with no special knowledge can easily follow. With the exception of the people in your office, department, or school, many people coming to your site are most likely unfamiliar with the title and structure of the office.
Categorize and convey information in ways that do not require special knowledge of your acronyms, lingo, or org chart. Think critically about the name of your office or department—would it make sense to an outsider? Link titles within navigations are often shortened and generalized versions of full office name (which can be used on the page header).
2. Order links based on use, leaving room for strategic organization.
Navigation should be user-centric, listing the most sought-after information first (for many offices that offer services to others, these are useful at the top). Exceptions should be made for strategic reasons, i.e. listing high priority pages first with other sub-pages presented in order of agreed-upon importance. It is convention to put contact information (staff lists, directions) last. Revise the navigation list order to reflect your primary users’ needs, but balance this with internal knowledge of what you’d like people to see first. Alphabetical lists should only be used if the links all have the same level of importance.
3. Organize links intuitively.
Homepage, Section, and Departmental top-level navigation should be organized into intuitive groupings. If possible, list the navigation in an order that places similar categories together or in a list which steps through the information logically.
4. Navigation link names tell a story too.
The pages linked from a top-level navigation should work together to tell a story about the institution (or section/office); users will frequently click through all top-level links one after the other, so they ought to work together and ought to give a sense, however abbreviated, of the overall content to be found throughout the site. This is a less important issue for administrative office sites.
5. Keep navigation lists under control.
Navigation lists should be 6-8 links long with no more than 8-10. Long lists of links are difficult to read. Section (office, department) navigation should be no more than 3 levels deep (homepage, second-tier pages, and sub-pages under those second-tier pages).
In order to keep the navigation list shorter, develop a hierarchy of information, placing some pages under others (as sub-pages) in the IA structure. Not all pages can/should be accessible from the main page.
6. Navigation link titles should represent categories of information and remain consistent across major areas of the site.
This is most important at the top-levels of the IA, but still relevant deeper in the site. This allows the content to shift and change while the IA remains the same. When similar information is represented by the same link titles, users can find information easier as they navigate across departments, offices, or schools.
Does your navigation contain specific names of offices, initiatives, or events? Think about how these might be generalized. There is some leeway on this, but as a general rule it is important to keep these types of link titles at a minimum.
Review link titles—is there a broader category that can encompass the information? Conform to the approved set of link titles for general categories of information, working your pages into the standard system.
Review content for duplication elsewhere on the site. If your office is not the original source of the information, link to its source page within the text.
Likewise, is some information buried under links that do not directly correspond to the link title?
7. Do not repeat link titles within the same section navigation.
While maintaining link title naming consistency across similar units (Departments, Administrative Units) is important, pages within the same section should not have the same name. For example, if the top-level navigation has a page entitled “Research,” no other page within that area of the site should be named “Research.”
8. Ever-present navigation.
Top-level navigation should be accessible from every page of the site, as should all links within a page’s own section.
9. Link only to pages within the section.
With few exceptions, the navigation should link to internal pages only. Links that are part of the primary navigation should not take the user to another site (external or internal) or to a pdf (or other) downloadable file.
Click through your site to test all links in the navigation, removing those that lead elsewhere or to a download. These should be incorporated as links in the text and/or as part of a “Related/Important Links” area of the page. With the “elsewhere” links, the rule is not as rigid: It’s fine to deliberately cross-list pages in two places in the navigation when it intuitively makes sense.