2023 Conference Web Strategy

How user-centered design and information architecture shape user experiences on the web

Robust information architecture (IA) is grounded in user research and strategic planning. Jessica Schillinger shares best practices for user-centered website design.

Future-proof: Investing in user-focused IA strategies in times of volatility

Jessica Schillinger of web agency Kalamuna, Inc. led a lively session on how adopting user-centered design principles can help universities be more proactive in maintaining effective information architecture (IA) on the web.

“Working in higher education — it’s a unique place,” said Schillinger, who has worked for four universities in three states.

A nod to the session’s title — “Future-proof: Investing in user-focused IA strategies in times of volatility” — Schillinger said universities should expect some level of volatility in the higher education landscape. With this in mind, she underscored the significance of robust IA, grounded in user research and strategic planning. This, she explained, is crucial for ensuring that websites are in a position to align with user needs.

3 questions for any web project

Schillinger provided a set of foundational questions for any website initiative.

  1. Who are you reaching?
  2. What do they need?
  3. Where do they find it?

Gather a team

Next, she suggested pulling together a team of at least three people with varying levels of connection with the website project — such as a dean with decision-making authority, an office administrator with deep institutional knowledge and an enthusiastic graduate student.

“It’s critical to get other people’s thoughts,” Schillinger said, as drawing on different groups of people adds diverse perspectives to the project.

Identify user types and goals

Then, determine four to six types of users that help answer the question, “Who are we trying to reach?” Examples might include:

  • Decision makers
  • Donors
  • Potential collaborators
  • Media

The next step is to discern these users’ goals — essentially, what do these users require from your site?

Schillinger cautioned attendees not to simply make a list of “stuff.” If you get stuck, she said, consider using “The 5 Whys” technique, which involves repeatedly asking “why?” to help get closer to the root of the issue.

Visual tools and tactics

  • Create a decision-makers worksheet: Use a simple table to outline user goals and assign a number system to rank how important each goal is to both the user and the organization. This can help prioritize decisions and clarify what is most valuable to each audience.
  • Content mapping: Helps visualize where users find the content they’re seeking and how content is related.
  • Card sorting and/or tree testing: Physical (or digital) card sorting using sticky notes or a digital equivalent removes any “website-y” structures and distractions. Card sorting can help test how a proposed website layout is actually working for users.

And that, Schillinger said, “is a really beautiful thing.”

Link Journal has covered the HighEdWeb Annual Conference since 2011. Explore our archives for articles about previous conference sessions.

Stephanie DeBoer is associate director of digital communications at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Her expertise lies in crafting meaningful user experiences through digital content and design. She has played a key role in many prominent digital initiatives at Brandeis, including the recent transformation of the university’s news website into the visually engaging and accessible storytelling platform, Brandeis Stories.

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