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Why You Need Strong Governmental Information Architecture

Government agencies have a special obligation to create usable websites. Usability is the digital extension of good public service. There is one significant usability problem that we encounter most often. Government sites can struggle with poor information architecture (IA).

What is IA? It’s an underlying system of organization. Sites rely on IA to help make their content easy to find and use. IA also encompasses other parts of the site structure. The layout of the site, how the navigation works, and the pages and labels seen, are all examples. It’s also the metadata and taxonomies that you may not notice at first glance.
So, what are government websites getting wrong?

Problem #1: Information Overload

It can be tempting to put as much information as possible on your website. This is partially driven by the desire to inform the public. Unfortunately, putting too much information on a site or a page is detrimental. It will actually hurt your site’s ability to impart information to users.

Your website is an opportunity to answer common questions before the user has to pick up a phone or send an email. By not providing important content, everyone’s jobs can become more difficult. You’re either burdening your own staff or missing an opportunity to serve the public. But, if you’re putting that content online in a way that makes it too difficult to find? Well, you’re probably going to wind up getting calls anyway.

Problem #2: Silo Mentality

Government sites should not need users to know anything about the structure of an agency. Organizing information into little fiefdoms on your website will hurt findability. Instead, organize content based on users’ needs. This strategy is at the heart of effective information architecture.

One of the biggest silo mentality problems we see are forms, reports, and other documents buried on program or department pages. Usually, they are simple file attachments. When you do that, you are making it harder for people to find your documents. Their only option is to navigate through your content to find what they need. This leaves out the part of your audience Googling your information. It can also hurt those using your own site search. Even for users who want to use your navigation, you’re requiring them to find the exact right page. Then they have to read through the content to find what they need. Think of your users!

Problem #3: Confusing Labeling

Again, you can’t expect users to understand the in-and-outs of an agency. They aren’t going to know what to do with jargon or technicalterminology. Using plain language is extremely important. You can’t just look at labels individually, though. It’s necessary to look at sets of labels together to make sure they work cohesively. After all, users are going to need to look at a group of labels and make the right choices.
The good news is that there are plenty of techniques for attacking these problems. The first step is always user research. Understanding your users better allows you to create an informed strategy. You can compare user needs to your business objectives and make strong decisions. Knowing who you’re organizing information for and why makes choices about information architecture easier.

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