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Website information architecture unlocks multichannel experience

Creating meaningful customer experience on the front end requires some important website information architecture planning on the back end.

As the digital revolution accelerates, organizing all our stuff for multichannel experiences becomes ever-more...

important. We are no longer simply searching for answers from our fullscreen browsers or querying the contents of Web-based applications. With powerful devices in our pockets, we are immersed in a digital world. We expect meaningful results whether we are stationary or on the go.

But to create meaningful customer experience and seamless navigation on the front end, organizations must carry out important website information architecture planning on the back end. Thinking about how your website is topically organized and structuring your webpages to reflect those categorizations becomes critical.

Self-evident connections

Like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography ("I know it when I see it"), we know a good digital experience when we have one. But how and why are some experiences better than others? What must we do to create great ones? It all boils down to how the content is structured, and whether there are self-evident connections in plain sight, among the discrete chunks of information we access on our smartphones, tablets and PCs.

These self-evident connections are often termed the information architecture for a digital experience. Like the architecture of a building that considers both its aesthetics and its function, information architecture encompasses a coherent structure that makes sense and that enables us to quickly understand our immediate problems at hand.

Fixed hierarchy

Initially the domain of librarians and other information science professionals, information architecture begins as a fixed hierarchy. Books are often categorized by meaningful topics, but sometimes they are arranged alphabetically by authors or publishers.

Beginning in the 19th century, librarians devised classification systems for putting like things next to one another. With the rise of department stores and big-box retailers in the 20th century, marketers honed their product classification skills by grouping like things into self-evident categories and subcategories for optimum shopping experiences.

From atoms to bits

In the transition from atoms to bits, physical and digital things are not that different. It helps to group products by kind, topic or subject matter. But to do so, website managers need predefined taxonomies: consistent terms structured around central organizing principles. The trick is defining the right taxonomy for the customer experience and business purpose.

For instance, many big-box retailers now build master product taxonomies, categorizing all the items they sell in physical and online stores into single term sets. It takes a lot of work to harvest terms in use within various channels, then to make the terminology consistent, to normalize it, and add the scope notes describing how terms are maintained and governed. The results are often far-reaching, enlisting organizing principles where the same terms describe products in all channels, such as print ads, e-commerce sites and mobile apps.

The business benefits expand exponentially in the digital domain. Unlike atoms and the fixed categories of physical things, bits fuel digital experiences through new connections. Information architecture for multichannel experiences includes many factors that extend beyond predefined product hierarchies. This architecture addresses various aspects of digital domains. It's up to marketers to identify the customer journeys, characterize the self-evident connections and define the additional taxonomies needed.

Molding digital experiences

Digital marketers begin by developing customer personas. They describe how members of the target audience will use the information, determine the additional categories and organize the new terms into specific taxonomies. For instance, a home improvement retailer may decide to distinguish between professional and consumer-grade products on its website. It may offer special services to contractors or to do-it-yourselfers. Marketers can mold digital experiences by developing the relevant taxonomies related to business results.

Mobile access adds a dimension to website information architecture and its ability to deliver multichannel customer experiences. For instance, a big-box retailer may want to highlight its best-selling products on its smartphone app and display popular products by customer solutions on its tablet app. Digital marketers may want to deploy location-based content and send coupons to contractors' smartphones as they walk into stores in the middle of their work days. This requires the relevant terms, organized into one or more taxonomies, which capture mobile experiences.

Of course, implementation remains a challenge. Support for mobile apps requires a firm foundation of content infrastructure. Aided by various underlying technologies (including second- and third-generation Web content management systems), it is up to digital marketers to drive the multichannel experiences. As a first step, they should map customer lifecycles across physical and digital channels, identify the relevant terms, create the taxonomies, and determine the self-evident connections.

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This was last published in November 2014

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What is the greatest challenge in delivering a meaningful customer experience across multiple channels?
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Coordination across departments is probably the biggest challenge, as different channels may be managed separately. A centralized structure for all content and messaging can help with reducing inconsistencies and setting expectations customer communication across the board. 
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Good points, Geoff. Putting the work in to make things logical and structured will save a lot of headaches and confusion later on (both for an organization and its customers). One of the challenges here is probably just getting multiple departments on the same page about not only what the structure should be, but what its purpose is. Do you have any tips for having these conversations with, say, both marketing and IT?
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