By Mark McGrath, August 2016.
Translating your business goals and organisational chart to into a sitemap is unlikely to satisfy your users. The best approach is to discover your user needs with research, then select the content that matches both your organisational and user needs.
Many organisations find it difficult to translate business goals into a sitemap that will make sense for their users. This is because they either aren't aware of user research methods or don't know how to do it.
This article aims to bridge the gap between business goals and site-mapping by applying user needs research for organisations developing a new website.
Simply translating business goals into content won't work
Most organisations know what they want to achieve with their website, because a website is a virtual extension of their business. Whatever they do offline, they should do online. So in effect, their website is the online application of their business goals.
That's fine as a big picture. But it's translating business goals into user-friendly organisation of content that is the tricky bit many organisations find challenging. Essentially this is making the jump from your business goals (organisational needs) to your sitemap.
Unfortunately, many organisations simply take a best-guess approach to this and simply come up with what they think might work best here. Or worse, simply apply the organisational chart as the principle for organising and labelling content.
User needs and project resources need to be considered as well
The missing link that takes the guesswork out of this process is research on user needs; working out what your users want and then what organisation of content will work best for them.
However, it's not as easy as simply finding this out and applying it.
Users want many things. But only some of this content will align with your business goals. Then of the content that does align with your business goals, there are the questions of what is the best way to organise this content and if you have the capacity to produce this content.
The content sweet spot
Where your organisation needs intersect with your user's needs and your project resources is what I call the content sweet spot. This is the content that you should be focussing on and giving the greatest prominence to in your website. It's what you and your users want, and what you can afford to produce.
So how do we hit the content sweetspot?
1. Identify your organisational needs
For many organisations, this appears an easy task. It's self-evident what they are in the business of doing and it's obvious how you can do this business online.
However, it's worthwhile being thorough and examining all the business goals of your organisation, checking that all these are being met online. You should also check that all of your offline services (provided by telephone, post and over the counter) are being provided online, and include these as potential online services if they are not.
Examine all your business goals
Most organisations frame their content around their business goals of service and product delivery. However, most organisations also have other goals, especially government or non-profit organisations. It is these other business goals that are worth checking to see if there are online services to meet these goals.
For example, a State government department charged with the responsibility of regulating industry X, will know that informing industry participants and the public on how industry X can operate is a fundamental goal of the organisation. So one of their primary organisational needs is to publish the regulations on industry X on their website.
However, this organisation may have other goals such as:
- Educating the industry participants on what these regulations are and how they apply (publishing them online may not be enough).
- Ensuring compliance with these regulations.
- Assuring the public that the regulations are being complied with.
- Developing goodwill amongst industry participants and the general public.
- Complying themselves with relevant government standards.
These goals could then translate into the following online content.
|Organisation need||Possible content|
|Educating industry participants on regulations||
eLearning services (webinars, quizzes, online meetings, live chat).
|Ensuring regulatory compliance||Online self-servicing where users provide evidence of compliance via a series of online forms.|
|Public assurance of compliance||Publishing survey results of industry compliance or possibly a live feed of real-time data.|
|Developing goodwill||Online promotion of goodwill programs. Video and webinar content.|
|Organisational compliance||Compliance with government web standards and privacy legislation and other statutory requirements.|
Audit your offline services and check these against your online services
If your organisation has not reached full digital business capability, then it's worth auditing all the services you provide offline (via telephone, post and over the counter) and check to see if you are providing the full extent of these same services online.
With the advent of fast broadband, any offline transaction is now capable of being fully provided.
The table below shows the equivalent online services of typical offline services.
|Offline service||Equivalent online service|
|Telephone enquiry||Live chat|
|Face to face meeting||
|Postal application||Online application form|
|Payment over the counter or via telephone||Online payments|
|Information requests||Searchable online database|
Organisations may be providing services offline that aren't provided online, but could be at a lower transaction cost. Users increasingly prefer to do business online, so the potential cost savings warrant investment in providing online services.
2. Discover your users' needs
The temptation here is to treat user needs research as a luxury item and save money by not doing any research into your user needs, making your best guess instead. This may save you money now but it will cost you more later, in terms of less user satisfaction and ultimately more time and money correcting the mistakes you would have made by not doing this research in the first place.
A full research process is required to get the right answers
It's poor value for money only doing some user research. To get the greatest return from your research you need to invest in the full process.
The full user research process involves identifying issues, developing solutions, measuring the preference for these solutions, then turning these solutions into content and discovering the best way to organise this content.
The table below explains how this is achieved.
A. Discover user issues.
|Website requirements workshop|
|B. Author user stories.||User stories workshop|
|C. Develop solution responses that address identified issues and use cases.||Expert analysis|
|D. Measure preferences for solution responses.||Website requirements survey|
|E. Select most preferred solutions, then translate these into web content.||Expert analysis|
|F. Discover the best way to organise content that makes the most sense to users.||Card-sorting test|
A. Discover user issues
Conducting website requirements workshops is the best way to discover user issues.
Ideally, you should conduct a website requirements workshop for each defined target audience of your website. However, if that's not affordable, then a representative sample of all target audiences in one workshop can suffice.
Although with some self-directed learning you could run these workshops yourself, you are best employing an external web consultant as they can bring to bear their expertise when recommending solutions and remove any possibility or perception of bias.
In these workshops, you are usually trying to discover:
- Problems and successes with the current website.
- Possible solutions for the new website that address issues with the current website.
- Any new ideas for the new website.
B. Author user stories
User stories are typical scenarios of users using a website for a particular purpose. You can develop these yourself by imagining yourself as some of your users, but they are best developed by a sample of your actual users in a user story workshop facilitated by an expert web consultant.
The technique here is to develop as many typical user stories as you can (making sure they are realistic) and afterwards, try to develop solution responses that address the needs from these user stories.
Some examples of user stories for a local council website are:
|User story||Solution response|
|Mary, a ratepayer, would like to find out the balance owing on her rates and then pay the balance online.||An online payments service that allows users to:
> login to their account
> view their balance
> pay their rates
|John, a homeowner, wants to find out how BAL ratings may restrict his options for extending his house.||An online service that allows users to enter their address and BAL rating, then responds with a corresponding set of building restrictions.|
You can try to develop user stories in website requirements workshops, but from my experience, this makes for a very crowded workshop agenda and tends to ask too much of the participants.
C. Develop solution responses
You will need to develop content solutions that address the issues and use cases that have been identified in these workshops after you have completed findings reports from your website requirements and user story workshops. Ideally, recommended solution responses should be included in the findings reports if you have hired an expert web consultant to run these workshops.
The goal here is to finalise a list of content ideas that you can then test in a user survey.
To do this you need to: merge, assimilate, synthesise and reject draft solution responses from the workshops and then organise these responses into logical groupings such as:
- Design preferences
- Content preferences
- Preferred online services
As an option, you could seed-in any content ideas drawn from your organisational needs analysis that have not been identified by your users.
This work is best done by an expert web consultant as they can draw on their experience to recommend what works best for particular issues and use cases.
D. Measure preferences for solution responses
An online survey of your users is the best way to measure your user preferences for your proposed solution responses.
Your online survey should:
- Take no longer than 15 minutes to complete.
- Display progress to users as it is being completed.
- Employ best-practice in online survey design.
- Use a conversational style of language.
- Group questions into logical topics that make sense to the user.
- Offer an incentive to users (eg money or prizes).
If you have little or no experience in designing and publishing online surveys then you are best employing an expert web consultant to do this work as a badly designed survey can severely undermine the integrity of the results, which can then lead to mistakes in your site mapping.
E. Select the most preferred solutions
You should now select the content that is most preferred by your users. This selection should be based on the findings of your online user survey.
Then you need to translate these preferences into content labels.
Try to be as granular as you can with the labelling of this content because one of the desired outcomes from the upcoming card-sorting test will be to get your users to give appropriate names to content items they group.
For example, instead of having a content label called "Publications", it would be more useful to break this down into the following publications you would like to publish in your new website:
- Annual reports
- Discussion papers
- Research reports
F. Determine the most sensible arrangement of content
Card-sorting is the best way to determine the arrangement of content that makes the most sense to your users.
User motivations don't always match the departments of an organisation. Quite often the services a user wants from a website span across departments of an organisation. This means that structuring content along departmental lines will likely cause users to do extra unnecessary work, resulting in user dissatisfaction.
This can be avoided by conducting a card-sorting test and having the results of this test inform your site mapping decisions.
While the results of a card-sorting test may not produce a definitive sitemap for you, it can help resolve issues around the way your users would expect to see content organised in your new website.
Typical issues that a card-sorting test can help resolve are:
- By what criteria do users prefer content to be organised by?
- information type
- target audience type (user role)
- How similar or different are the preferences of different target audience groups?
- What groupings of content do users most prefer?
- How strong or weak are these content preferences?
- What labels do users prefer for these content groupings?
- How strong or weak are these label preferences?
Conducting a card-sorting test is not that hard, but analysing the results and making sitemap recommendations from these results requires expertise in information architecture and web usability, so you are best to use an expert web consultant for this work. It's also a good idea to have an expert web consultant facilitate the test as they can gain valuable insights from hearing the participants verbalise their thinking and decision-making when completing the test.
3. Select the content that you and your users want
At this stage, you would have a list of content ideas drawn from your organisational and your user needs analyses. You now need to make some decisions on what content you choose to create for your new website.
There are three options for the approach you take here:
- Select all content identified by organisational and user needs analysis.
- Select some content identified by organisational and user needs analysis, whether they have been identified by both analyses or not.
- Select only content that has been identified by both organisational and user needs analysis (the content sweet spot).
Option 3 is the best option to use as an approach to selecting content. However, if you can't live with that (as there may be content you see as essential to the organisation, but has not been preferred by your users), then option 2 would be the next best approach.
Option 1 would be the least preferred approach as you shouldn't be publishing content that is not supported by your users or needed by your organisation.
4. Check what content you can afford to produce
After selecting your preferred content, you need to check what you can afford to produce.
There are two stages to apply here:
- Estimating external costs for producing content sourced from web development agencies.
- Estimating your internal costs for producing this content.
Estimating external costs
There are two options on how you can do this:
- Source indicative cost estimates from web development agencies before you complete a full Request For Proposal (RFP) document.
- Source quotes from web development agencies with a completed RFP document, requesting that publishing of each content item be costed separately.
Option 2 is the best option to pursue here, as web development agencies would be given the full context and detail of each content area to be created. Estimating costs without this full context and detail (option 1) would be more difficult to judge and therefore these cost estimates would be less reliable.
After you have finalised estimated costs for each content idea, then you need to check the total costs against your project budget. If your total content production costs are over-budget then you need either to cut some content ideas back or see if you can increase your budget.
Once you have cost estimates for all your content the next step is to apply your own internal costs to producing this content.
Estimating internal costs
The easiest approach to take here is to simply estimate the number of hours it will take your staff to produce your selected content, then check to see if you have the capacity (available hours) to produce this content by the relevant project deadlines.
You should adopt a best-practice writing the for the web approach when estimating these hours.
Staged development as an alternative
If you have selected content that you can't afford to produce, then a good alternative is to adopt a staged development approach, where you can produce this content in a later stage of web development. This approach buys you extra time to develop content in-house and extra money to produce this content from future budget allocations for web development.
5. Construct a sitemap from your findings
After you have made a final selection of content, you can now construct a sitemap of your content, based on all your findings from organisational and user needs analysis, as well as your content affordability check.
Be guided by your users' preferences
As much as possible, you should be guided here by the findings of card-sorting test within your user needs analysis, as that is the way most of your users will prefer content to be organised.
However, if there is content you are inserting into a sitemap that was not identified or preferred by your users, then you need to be careful to not substantially change your users' preferred organisation of content to accommodate this content.
Retest content mix if you substantially change it from your users' preferences
If you were substantially changing your users' preferred organisation of content and were adding a significant amount of content not identified or preferred by your users, then ideally, you would retest this new mix of content in another card-sorting test. However, if your budget doesn't allow you to do this, then your next best option is to seek the advice of an expert web consultant to resolve this issue.
How to classify your content
Your sitemap diagram should display all content you are intending to produce in your new website as a collection of parent-child relationships. You should also classify this content with the following criteria:
- Dynamic (content you will add to regularly over time like News or Events) or static content.
- Sort criteria (eg by date published, title, selected priority order).
- Site functions:
- Subscribe to e-News
- Webform (eg a survey or service request form)
- Share tools*
- Print page*
- Font-size controls*.
* These are usually made available on all published pages and can be listed under "Sitewide functions"
Here is a simple example of a sitemap using this approach.
Design treatment considerations
Although this is outside the realm of site mapping, you may want to consider how you will treat this content in the design phase of your project.
The content you selected that resided in the content sweetspot should be given maximum exposure. You can do this by:
- Making it part of the primary main site navigation.
- Highlighting it on the homepage (above the fold).
- Featuring it in your right-hand sidebars.
If you selected some content that was not supported by both organisational and user needs analysis, then you should consider relegating this content to be secondary to the content that was supported by both analyses. You can do this by:
- Making them secondary navigation like this example.
- Avoiding highlighting this content on the homepage or seed it below the sweetspot content on the homepage (below the fold).
- Don't promote it in your right-hand sidebars.
You should publish content that is preferred by both your organisation and your users, and you can afford.
Use a full research approach to discover your user needs. This means:
- Discovering your user's issues with website requirements workshops.
- Authoring user stories with a user stories workshop.
- Developing solution responses to identified issues use cases with expert analysis.
- Measure preferences for solution responses with a website requirements survey.
- Discover the best way to organise content with a card-sorting test.
Only publish content that is not preferred by your users, which is essential to your organisation. If you can do without this content then take the advice of your users and leave it out.
Develop a sitemap informed by your user needs analysis, in particular, the findings from your card-sorting test. Avoid deviating from your users' content preferences as much as possible. If you deviate substantially from your users' preferred organisation of content then either rest the new content mix with another card-sorting test or seek advice from an expert web consultant.
Mark McGrath is the Principal Consultant and Director of Social Change Media.
- Website requirements workshop
- Website requirements survey
- Website specifications development
- Writing for the web workshop
- Web content publishing