One of the most critical steps in redesigning any website – whatever the content and whatever the size – is planning the information architecture. The top level and secondary navigational options on your website need to be right for your information, or your users won’t be able to find what they’re looking for.  And when they can’t find what they’re looking for, everybody loses – your information doesn’t get find its audience, the users don’t buy what you want them to buy – and it’s costly and time-consuming to fix after the site is complete.

Although you may think you know what you want on the top navigation bar, it’s always best to start with a breakdown of the Scenarios (where users are and what is motivating them to come to your site), as well as Key Tasks coming out of each scenario (what you want your users to be able to do.  These are action-oriented items, and there can be any number of them, from less than 10 to well over a hundred.

You should differentiate the key tasks from the subsidiary tasks, in a document with tables such as this:

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After you have your scenarios and tasks mapped out, you’ll want to create different tab structures that can accommodate all the listed tasks.  I find it easiest to start with the key tasks when designing an information architecture, but ultimately you’ll need to place all of the tasks into some kind of tab structure. (I often use a simple Powerpoint or Word file to map out simple variations on 3, 4, 5, or 6 main navigation tabs, for example).  The advantage of Powerpoint is you can quickly and easily duplicate each slide to make as many variations as you want of each tab “set.”

The number of tabs can be expanded to fewer or more tabs, or if you want to get fancy you can add subsidiary links above the tabs (such as for “My Account” or “Help” or the like).

On large Website redesigns, navigation deserves considerable thought.  I have sometimes started out with a dozen or more variations on these kinds of tab sets.

If you’re working in a group, this can be a team exercise.  Project your sample navigation ideas for the group, and for each variation, call out a key task you want your users to accomplish.  Either as part of a discussion or on individual worksheets, members of the team select the right “tab” in your structure for each tab:

For example, for this variation….

Where would you go to…find a distributor near you?
Where would you go to…change your password?

The more team members agree in their placement of tasks within tabs, the more that variation of your navigation structure is more likely to do well with users.

This process is another way of doing a Card Sort, and it is a very useful technique for setting the direction for your Website redesign.

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