Too much information architecture: how big to make your website?

Quick answer: as big as possible. With an addendum: so long as it’s organised correctly

Hopefully by now you’ve discovered our guides and articles about Information Architecture (IA) – the process of determining how the information and content on your site is structured. But once you’ve gone through the IA optimization process, there’s still one thing left to determine: just how big should your website be?

Normally with Information Architecture, you start with a list of items the website needs to feature. This will be defined by your client, with a little help from your own common sense. You’ll probably have a default set of pages that are needed, like a landing page, a contact us page and a sitemap for SEO. Then in addition, you’ll have items specific to your website, like employee profiles, a store-finder, a product catalogue or blog content.

Once you have that list, you’ll traditionally put each item on a post-it note and start grouping them according to what items make sense together. It’s called card sorting, and if you’re being user-centric you’ll get a group of people together in a room to do this with you.

Once you have your set of categories and what items are contained within each, you can then check with your user test group to see if it makes sense by reversing the process. tree testing is where you show your users a list of pages, give them the name of an information item and see if they can intuit which page it would be on.

You can even automate the process, by showing them mock-ups of the pages and asking them to click where they think the right link for the info would be.

It’s an important step that many site designers forget about, as can be attested to by any internet user who has found themselves tearing their hair out trying to find a particular detail on a poorly designed site.

Still, you may have noticed that there are three particular things that this process fails to determine:

  1. How much information should be on your site?
  2. How many pages should your site have?
  3. How long should each page be?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. As the saying goes, you might as well ask how long is a piece of string.

Every website is unique and some will need more space than others. Generally speaking, there are ways to decide on what the best size is for each site.

1) How much information should be on your site?

The first question has a really simple answer with one addendum. The answer is: as much as possible. The addendum is: so long as it’s organised correctly. If your information is easy to find and filtered so it’s not overwhelming, then the more information your site can provide, the better.

Think of it like a library. If your ‘library’ is just a pile of books in a random order, then the more books there are, the harder it will be to find what you need; but if your library is properly organised into Dewey Decimal and everything is sorted onto shelves with librarians to guide you, then your books will be readily available, no matter how big the library. In this case, the more books your library has, the better.

As such, if you do your Card Sorting and testing properly later on, then your site can only be improved by containing more information. The only limitation is how much time and resource you have to create and maintain the content.

You can deal with that by getting your users involved in the earlier stages. Go to your users and ask them what information they need from the site. Likewise, ask your client’s employees what questions their customers ask them regularly that the site could answer. This will help you figure out what to prioritise and also probably pick up some things you’ve missed.

Ultimately, so long as your site is well designed and not cluttered, it can never be too informative or too useful. You can, however, make your lives far easier by spending your time on only the most useful information for your client’s users.

2) How many pages should your site have?

So, you have a long list of all the items, information and features that your users might need in priority order – how many groups do you put them in?

Conventionally, you’ll put them in however many categories make sense and turn that into pages, but is that right for your site? How many pages is optimal?

Well, it’s actually the inverse of the previous point. The more information your site can contain in as few pages as possible, the better the user experience will be. The more pages you have, the more your user needs to click through and the bigger structure they need to navigate. This means more effort for your user and more effort for you in maintaining it.

The key formula for UX is the most value for the least amount of work. The more information on a smaller site, the more useful the site, so long as it doesn’t get cluttered.

Which brings us to…

User Experience Research 101

For an in-depth and entertaining guide to getting started with user research, read our free-to-download, comprehensive ebook.

3) How long should each page be?

This last point is a bit more complicated. Getting this right involves balancing the previous two issues precisely. You want lots of information on as few pages as possible, so saying your pages should be simple and brief hardly seems fair. Nevertheless, it’s entirely possible, it just takes some skill.

Getting a lot of information into a very small space takes a talented designer and probably a good copywriter too. Still, looking at the layout of sites like Craigslist, you can see how a basic, easy-to-use layout can convey a great deal of information – particularly if you leave out fancy design and flashy features.

Always remember that the look of your site is secondary to its practicality and a nifty bit of code should support the usability of your site or else it’s not helpful.

For ideal SEO, each page of your site should have either less than 700 or more than 1,500 words. For the landing and navigation pages, go for less, blogs and articles should be more. Make this distinction in your Card Sorting…

Navigation pages should be short, simple and functional. These are your traditional web pages as you would normally think of them, with toolbars and links. They should be brief and preferably all the content should be above the fold, so it can all be seen without scrolling. Text will be minimal and the important parts will be highlighted for easy skimming.

Take the old Virgin Atlantic homepage for an example:

Content pages, on the other hand, are more like a blog. These aren’t pages users would land on and move off, but something they might sit down and take the time to read carefully, maybe even for fun. These should be longer, so users can read one chunk of text and then scroll down to the next. This may even include embedded videos or audio files. Nothing will need highlighting as users will probably take in the whole page.

Look at ABC’s Copywriting’s Infographic to see what I mean:

This image only shows a small fraction of the full-length infographic, so click through to see its full glory.

Think of the distinction between ‘doing’ and ‘learning’ pages. If you need to pay your gas bill, you want to do that as quickly as possible. It’s a necessary evil, so make it as painless as it can be with short, uncluttered pages.

On the other hand, say you need to find out everything there is to know about buying a new mattress before you make the decision. You may bookmark a long article about the sizes and options to sit down and read through with your partner later in the evening. You’ll likely want long infographics, videos and descriptive text to make you feel you’ve really done your due diligence.

This may sound complex, but it’s easy to build into your Card Sorting process. If you find you have a single or small group of post-its that stand alone and are a major priority for users, that’s likely something worth filling a short, simple page with.

On the other hand, if you have lots of post-its that fit very well into one category, that’s probably a good fit for a long, scrolling article with lots of diagrams and bullet points.

Ultimately, it always fits the same, simple formula: as much information and as many features in as short and simple an interface as possible. Your ideal site would just be a big button to click that would do everything you needed it to. That won’t work in real life, but the less you move away from it, the better your site is.

So how long is a piece of string? Only as long as it needs to be to tie your knot.

UserZoom can help test, measure and improve your own site’s UX