How to structure your content

A big part of content design is how you structure and manage information.

Ask a lot of content people how to structure content and they’ll dive straight into things like information architecture rules, search results, page orientation, triage and order. Really, structuring content comes down to one thing: your user’s head.

It doesn’t matter if you’re structuring a single page, a section or a whole website. The structure should always be based on your user’s mental model.

Your user’s mind, not your organisation’s structure

Many websites have a structure that reflects how the company works. Not how the user works. When this happens, you’ll get comments like;

  • ‘the site is badly designed’,
  • ‘it’s hard to understand’,
  • ‘it’s just me, I don’t get the web’.

Users blaming themselves for a site’s failings should be the hardest comments for us, as web professionals, to hear.

Those users come to a site for a purpose. They have chosen a result from search (most likely) and then got lost. It’s not their fault. They’re lost because designers and editors have structured the content on the site around their own mental models, not around users’ mental models.

How to get it right

There’s only one way to get your content structure right: test it with users. You can do a lot of desk research but the only way you’ll know if your content structure works, is by asking your audience.

You can do this in a number of ways: lab testing, remote testing, even going-into-a-street-and-ask-people testing, etc. Whatever you do, make sure you ask people what they think.

Before you get to testing your site, we’ll look at some simple structure considerations.

What the user wants

This part is easy. Write a user need and do what we talked about in push vs pull content.

Write clear titles

The first 5 words on any page will push or pull your audience to or away from your content. Arguably, this is the most important part of telling users if they’re on the right page.

Have a useful opening paragraph

Do you give background or what the user will find on the page in your opening paragraph? A summary or an introduction?

Neither. Possibly all of the above. The most successful pages tell you – within seconds – if you are on the right page, so do that in the first 15 to 20 words.

Get rid of people who are not going to be interested in your content. If you do, they might come back for other things because they trust you. At the very least, they won’t be annoyed about you wasting their time.

Keep to the 80/20 rule

Whatever information you have, put the information 80% of people are looking for up front and centre. Use data to determine what information is most important to your users.

This is particularly useful if you have a stack of information about one topic. It helps you structure each page and the section, or even the whole site. You still have to make sure all of the content is findable from search.

Use subheads

I’ve already talked about the importance of subheads in content design. Skip to the next section if you’ve already read why editors need to design. If you are still here: subheads are how you tell a story.

Your audience can take in the whole structure of your page at a glance if you do it well enough. They’ll know if they are on the right page, if the information is relevant. They'll know if it’s worth reading, just by reading the subheads.

Consider navigation

Navigation is a tricky one. I often hear: “It’s an absolutely massive job and will take weeks”. It might. But begin by keeping your user task in mind. Even huge, scary jobs can be interesting and successful if you constantly refer back to your users’ mental models.

For example, are they looking for a single piece of information like a price and then an application, or do they want everything at once? Data will tell you.

You can get that from Google, your current analytics and testing. Personally, I love card sorting. I am always surprised at how people’s minds work. There’s a number of good online card sorts you can set up cheaply.

Remember devices influence structure

You might wonder what devices have to do with structuring content. I struggle when mobile sites have a different structure and content than the corresponding ‘default’ sites. If your audience can use the mobile site without certain information, why is it on your desktop site? Clearly, you don’t need it.

Design changes between different devices are fine. But content changing? User’s don’t put in a different brain to use a mobile. We shouldn’t treat them as if they do.

Also, people use their mobiles to look something up quickly. They might want to continue reading later, on a desktop screen. If the content that users have found on the mobile site is hard to find on the desktop site, you can lose people in the transition.

Control your content

Keep in mind, your content might be pulled onto other pages or sites. In the online world, you can’t always control how your content is seen. All you can do is make sure it is coherent, well-written and structured according to your user’s mental model. Then you may find people take it all in. There’s also less risk you’ll be misrepresented.

Structure is everything

Structure means all of the above, from the title and search summary to subheads and design. But it always begins and ends in your user’s head. Start there. Though the job might be big, it will be fun.

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