Sometimes, when you’re developing a website, the sections of your website just fall into place. Say, if you’re creating a business site: you’d likely have a page called “About Us,” plus a page about each of your products and services, a page of affiliated businesses and links to their homepages, and a contact page. Fairly simple, straightforward page creation, which leads to simple, straightforward (and compact) navigation.
Unfortunately, dividing up your site’s content into pages and sections is not always that easy. Take my City of Heroes fansite–I’ve mucked around with the navigational sections for so long and tried so many different organizational styles, and I still haven’t gotten it where I want it. In my case, there are so many sections, and some of the sections kindasortamaybe overlap…not to mention that some pages that seemed like they’d be better as huge conglomerations of subject matter now seem like they need to be separated out into 4 or 5 different pages.
To try to fix this problem, I delved into the concepts of making individual pages and dividing up your navigation into understandable (and user-friendly) sections. Here is the step-by-step process I have come up with for fixing navigation and page division:
Look at Your Site as a User Would
This is very difficult for web developers and designers to do–looking at the site as if you’re not the one who made it is unsettling, at the least. But you need to have a fresh perspective on your site if you’re having trouble developing intuitive and understandable navigation for your users.
To gain some insight into this process, try browsing a site you’ve never been to. Doesn’t matter what it is, just browse it. While you do this, note any frustrations with the site’s organization. Does the navigation make sense? Is it easy to find individual pages just by clicking through the navigation, or have you already had to resort to the search box (if there is one provided)? Are the pages arranged into logical sections, or do the sections seem to have arbitrary labels?
Experiencing a new site like this forces you into a user’s perspective–for a short while, you have to navigate a site you’re not intimately familiar with. Now, go back to your own site, and explore the exact same way you just did. Does the navigation you’ve crafted, the sections you’ve devised, really make sense, or does it only make sense to you because you developed it? Be honest with yourself here.
In the case of my City of Heroes site, I have much of my navigation sorted by topic, but then I have a couple of non-topic labels (“New Players”, etc), which doesn’t fit the rest of the site’s organization. It makes it difficult to know which sections are most appropriate for pages to reside in–isn’t everything I publish more for new players, after all? If I want to fix this navigation problem, this content section problem, I need to take away the New Players section and make a more topical section (or sections) for all the pages that are currently within it. (This would be me practicin’ what I’m preachin’.)
Look at All Your Content, All Together
Sounds like a huge, time-consuming job, but trust me, it really, really works. Copy-paste all your written content into one large, simply-text file. (If you have photos as most of your content, congregate them all into one folder, and it works just as well–any place where you can look at all your content as a whole instead of in navigational pieces is the goal.)
Why do this? Because it will enable you to see what all your site encompasses in terms of content. In my case, even though I have 70+ pages of content on my City of Heroes fansite, copy-pasting it all into one file can show me where my articles for new players overlap themselves, and what articles don’t really fit the purpose of my site (like the “Humor” section, which, according to some users, isn’t very funny at all).
Doing this for your site can help you weed out what content doesn’t really “go” with the rest of your site, as well as figure out how it could be grouped better. Maybe those 3 tiny pages of useful links could be grouped together on one page instead; maybe that huge page featuring several novella-length articles could be broken apart and made into a section instead of a single page.
This exercise is especially helpful for figuring out where you have duplicated content on your site without realizing it. For instance, I had a fansite back in 2005 that I was trying to fix up, and I discovered during this very process of copy-pasting and scanning my content that I had 3 pages of almost exactly the same information. I don’t know how this escaped my attention, but it had, and so I could actually delete two of the pages and fix up the remaining one. Not only can this help you with your content, but it keeps you from doing unnecessary work later on pages that don’t need to exist!
Combining pages together or breaking them apart can be time-consuming as well, but if you’ve got all your content in one file like the last step suggested, it makes this task a lot easier. Rearrange, rewrite, delete, or add content as necessary, and if you need to, break your content into totally-new sections. Yes, this will take some time, but if you can make your site better and more efficient by doing this, then you need to do it–better and more efficient sites are more visited and enjoyed sites.
For my City of Heroes site, breaking the New Player section into possibly two or three sections based on topics is the big concern. But along the way, I could also tighten up content that needs a rewrite, and delete some places where I’ve accidentally duplicated content. There are also some places in the site where I need to update my information to make it current with the game environment.
Upload Your New Content and Navigation
I’d advise not to debut your new content organization until you’ve warned your users about it. It would be very disconcerting for a user to be browsing and suddenly–whoops!–that page they were just viewing isn’t there anymore!
Instead, give notice a week ahead of time that you will be scheduling “site downtime” for the reorganization process, and make the site inaccessible for the time that you’re going to need to upload everything. You can put up a temporary index page that tells the users what’s going on and what date/time you expect to have everything done, without any links to any content yet. (Don’t forget to edit the index page back to the way it was at the end of the process!)
When you have a site, be it a large informational site, a small business site, or anything in-between, you need to have a good sense of how content is divided up and how it is accessed. If it’s too confusing for users, they won’t return. Reorganizing your site, just like reorganizing your room, is key to helping your site function better and be more welcoming!