Structuring Websites

Focus on intentions of use
Rote Bänder
Last edited: March 2022

Many UX professionals lack methods to structure websites in a way that matches user behaviour. This guide shows you how to get started.

Robert Goesch
Robert Goesch
Lukas Rütten
Lukas Rütten

What's in this guide?

01 Information architecture - the elephant in the room Many UX professionals feel insecure when developing IA. You too?
02 User behaviour - the basis for structuring websites Business goals collide with user goals. Insights from behavioural psychology help you prioritise.
03 You need to know these three categories of usage intentions Science offers you three patterns of how people use digital products.
04 What category does your website serve? Which questions you use to assign the intentions of your users to a category.
05 How do you optimise your website? Which questions you use to assign the intentions of your users to a category.
06 How to align your information architecture with user behaviour Die Schritte auf einen Blick.
07 The science behind our guide Read on here: What sources we used. And what research we did ourselves.

Information architecture is a neuralgic point when we develop digital services and products. Every designer knows this, many deal with it almost daily, but not all feel confident in it: structuring websites. We have worked intensively on how we can adapt the architecture of websites to the behaviour of users. To do this, we have investigated which factors influence behaviour. And how people use digital products for their own purposes. Based on the research, we provide concrete help on how you can analyse people's intentions and address them appropriately. In this guide, we focus on how to structure individual websites. However, the findings can also be applied to the design of other touchpoints.

Information architecture - the elephant in the room

The better the information architecture, the easier it is to find your way around. And the safer the interaction, the faster the movement. We want to structure webpages so that people can use them intuitively. This succeeds when our interface corresponds to the user's mental model. The contents are then structured in such a way that they can be found quickly and easily. In this way, we create a kind of virtual information space. Users orient themselves and move around in this space while interacting with our page. The better, faster and more pleasant they can do this, the greater the chances of success. For our users. And for the business behind our website.

Information architecture plays a fundamental role in user-centred design. In an InVision survey, product designers ranked »information architecture« as the fourth most important skill for their job. UX professionals rate this skill as even more important in a Nielsen-Norman survey, where it ranks third.

Diagrammartige Darstellung auf hellgrauem Hintergrund von 67 befragten Personen mit einem erdbeerroten gepunkteten Vollkreis und einer erdbeerroten durchgezogenen Kreislinie innerhalb des gepunkteten Kreises, die anzeigt, dass 87 % von ihnen die Aufgabe für relevant halten, und einem erdbeerroten gefüllten Kreis innerhalb der Kreislinie, der anzeigt, dass 64 % von ihnen sich für die Aufgabe kompetent fühlen, und einer Legende in der oberen linken Ecke, die zu dieser Darstellung passt.
We asked UX professionals which tasks from the field of information architecture they see as part of their responsibility, which they carry out in their daily work and in which of these tasks they feel competent.

Alarming results

We asked UX professionals how they deal with the topic of »structuring websites« in their daily work. The results are alarming: basically, there is no standard; no method is used by a majority of designers. Many feel insecure. Yet information architecture is the foundation on which our communication is based. It is the architecture of our web page - in the truest sense of the word. This makes it all the more serious that many designers lack the method set and the confidence to cast this very foundation.

In the following chapters of this guide, we share our knowledge, models and methods with you. We show you how to develop an information architecture based on behavioural psychology. In this way, you can structure your web pages in such a way that they correspond to the users' intentions.

User behaviour - the basis for structuring websites

At the beginning, the first requirements are already set: the business goals. However, if we use these as the basis for our information architecture, we are not addressing the experience of our users.

  • Users don't care how and if the web page contributes to sales.
  • They don't care what stakeholders want to place on the page.
  • They don't warm up to brand and design specifications or the project budget for the web page either.

By this we do not mean that business interests should not have an influence on the final website. But we cannot meet these requirements if the basic structure of the information does not address the intention of use. Once we have moved our users to interact with our product, we can weave the business requirements into the product experience.

How do we structure? What orientation do we give our users? All of this we want to align with how people will behave when they use it. We cannot predict their actions. But we can analyse the essential factors that influence behaviour.

Behavioural psychology offers models for how people act. These give us clues as to which factors we need to study. In 2008, Daniel Montaño and Danuta Kasprzyk presented the Integrated Behaviour Model, which has become established in behavioural psychology. We decode this for product designers and present the essential influencing factors here.

Die Verhaltensabsicht von Menschen ist abhängig von ihrer Einstellung, den von ihnen wahrgenommenen Normen und ihrer persönlichen Handlungsfähigkeit.
IBM: Composition of behavioural intention

Intention to use - The driving force

The first and most important factor is intention. There is no behaviour without intention - whether the person acting is aware of it or not. More than anything else, it influences human action. Intention arises from the motivation to achieve a goal.

When people use a website, they also follow a behavioural intention. Three cognitive factors influence its emergence:

  • Attitudes. People draw on their individual experiences. It serves as a basis for them to make decisions and weigh possible consequences.
  • Perceived norms. These can be different for each individual person and in the respective context. At the same time, they are culture-dependent.
  • Personal agency. This is mainly about a sense of control over the outcome of the process. Users assess whether they have the resources to take the next step. They also look at their personal capabilities. Are they sufficient to be able to make progress?

    In extreme cases, these aspects can prevent a behavioural intention from emerging. Bad experiences can lead to defensive attitudes. Users feel burdened because they perceive contradictions with norms. Or they may be concerned about maintaining control over the process. If one or more of these feelings prevails, a website is not used at all. There is nothing we can do about that. After all, these processes take place before use. But we should be careful not to reinforce these feelings negatively. Because even during the interaction with our website, they can impair the experience. Or lead to abandonment.
Key takeaways

With these questions, you explore the factors that impact on the formation of behavioural intention:

What experiences have users had in this area so far? Do these emotionally shape their behavioural intention?
Do users have certain beliefs about how they should proceed in this specific context?
Are users exposed to certain norms and moral imperatives?
Do the users believe that they will make progress with the product in solving their problem? Or do they doubt it from the start?
Do users feel they have everything under control? Do they feel the process allows them to decide and act in a self-determined way?
Das Verhalten von Menschen ist abhängig von ihrem Wissen und ihren Fähigkeiten, ihrer Salinz, ihrer Verhaltensabsicht, ihrer Umwelt und ihren Gewohnheiten
Integrated Behavior Model: 5 Factors

Context of use - what we cannot control

The context in which users use our website has a significant impact on their behaviour. No news for product people. Many people don't find banking on a packed train at rush hour so cool. This is often where the wheat is separated from the chaff. Today, a transfer with Paypal is no longer a problem in such a situation. If we succeed in taking the circumstances into account as accurately as possible, our site will not only help people to reach their destination. They will also experience it as pleasant and intuitive to use.

Montaño and Kasprzyk's model distinguishes four factors here, with the help of which we can generate a more differentiated picture. And which we can address when structuring websites.

  • Knowledge and skills. This aspect refers to the resources that users bring with them. Their knowledge and skills have limits that are fundamental to interacting with a product.
  • Salience. This term refers to the users' selective focus on some of the information. Some perceive it while ignoring other stimuli. Attention is limited. It is particularly important for the product experience.
  • Environment. This includes all external influences that affect people during use and can be a hindrance to the product experience. We cannot influence their presence. But we need to get them out of the way as much as possible.
  • Habits. These include all the routines that users have and that they transfer to the use of the website. They are also crucial for interaction with a product.
Key takeaways

With these questions we can explore the different aspects of the context:

Is it an everyday task or does it require some expertise?
Does successfully solving the task require certain information?
Is the task carried out in a calm or in a chaotic environment?
Are there technical requirements to complete the task successfully?
Are there elementary influences that can affect the use?
Are there established solutions that users usually use to complete the task?
Do users run the risk of making serious mistakes due to wrong associations?

You need to know these three categories of usage intentions

When people use digital products and services for their goals, they show a certain »information-seeking behaviour«. This technical term means that they search for, use or share information according to a certain pattern. This ultimately depends on their usage intentions.

These regularly observed interaction patterns form the basis for our information architecture. We cannot build a separate website for every user. Therefore, it makes sense to group the specific usage intentions into typical categories. Various studies come to very similar results when examining »information-seeking behaviour«. Depending on which category the user intentions can be assigned to, you can structure websites accordingly.

The most common usage intentions on the web are called Act, Understand and Explore

  • Act. A clear goal shapes the use of the website. Users can usually clearly state their result expectation. Typically, they proceed in a focused and structured way. Within the scope of their knowledge and skills, they want to reach their goal as quickly as possible and without detours. Users expect a quick and clear result.
  • Understand. Here, too, there is an overriding goal of the action. However, the users are not yet able to name a clear result expectation at the beginning. A thorough approach characterises their behaviour, which may take a lot of time. They want to obtain as much information as possible, which they can integrate into their mental model and compare with other findings. They want to understand something and expect the website to make progress in doing so.
  • Explore. The users cannot name the concrete goal behind the use of the website. Characteristic is the consumption of many different contents in a short time. Behind this behaviour are goals such as inspiration, entertainment and distraction. The user wants to experience something.

The individual intentions of users can usually be assigned to one of these categories. Our classification is based on studies on information-seeking behaviour. These come from Xerox PARC (1997) and Toronto University (1998). In 2019, there was a re-run of the Xerox PARC study by the Nielsen-Norman Group. This confirms that the categories for information seeking are still valid today. Therefore, we can trust the results of these studies.

What category does your website serve?

When we talk about a website, we usually mean the complete web presence of an organisation or person. Here, however, we must distinguish more precisely. A web presence and the English term website refer to the entire web presence. That means: your homepage and all sub-pages. A web page, on the other hand, means the individual page.

When we address a usage intention, we do so with the help of a single web page. This means that a web presence can sometimes address several usage intentions. A website usually only addresses one.

Shopping online is part of our everyday life. Occasionally we want to return the goods we have received. We often do both via the same website. And yet the intention of use could not be more different. Whereas when we were shopping we compared the different offers with each other, when it comes to returning goods it can't be quick enough. An annoying evil that we want to get done as quickly as possible. We may perform both tasks on the same website. However, different websites are used for this. When browsing before buying, we still follow the Understand intention, whereas when returning, we follow the Act intention.

In order to shape the user experience, it is important to question again at each individual touchpoint: which intention are our users following and in which context are they travelling? It doesn't matter whether we are on a website, within an app or even in an email. The questions about intention and context of use help us when we structure individual web pages.

Key takeaways

With these guiding questions, you can assign the intention to use to the correct category:

If you can answer YES to these questions, your website probably serves the Act behaviour pattern:

Do users come to the website to complete a pre-determined task?
Is it important to users to make progress as quickly as possible?
Does the task require a constant high level of concentration from the users?

If you can answer YES to these questions, your website probably serves the Understand behaviour pattern

Do users spend a lot of time on the task of acquiring different information?
Do users intend to compare this information with other content or information they already know?
Is it important that the information corresponds as closely as possible to the users' level of knowledge? And that they can integrate the information into their existing knowledge?
Please note: It is possible that a single website serves several categories of intentions. Don't put blinders on here.

If you can answer YES to these questions, your website probably serves the Explore behaviour pattern:

Do users visit your website mainly for inspiration, entertainment or distraction?
Does the resource of time only play a subordinate role?
Can users achieve their goal even with a relatively low concentration level?

Is there a conflict of objectives with the business model?

Before we start aligning our information architecture to a category, we need to be clear about the business model. In some cases, it also provides the framework for the individual touchpoint we want to structure. In concrete terms, this means that the business model determines which usage intent we can serve. The reason may be that the business cannot profitably cover a different usage intent. If our users' intent is different, it doesn't matter how well we do our job. There would not be a match between users and our website. Then there is a trade-off between supply and demand. We can't resolve that at the level of design.

Netflix vs YouTube

Let's say I want to watch a film to switch off from everyday life. I can find many offers for this. If I watch a film on Netflix, I enjoy a completely different experience than on YouTube. Netflix primarily pushes the usage intention Act, whereas YouTube pushes the intention Explore.

Logically, because the business model is different: Netflix relies on a subscription model, whereas YouTube primarily generates revenue through advertising. That is why YouTube aggressively encourages the consumption of more and more content from a seemingly endless mass. The longer users stay on the platform, the more revenue YouTube makes.

Now, however, I want to relax with the next episode of my current series »Tidying Up with Mari Kondo«. Netflix picks me up right after I open it and offers me exactly the immersive experience I'm looking for. Even though I could watch the same thing on YouTube: Commercial breaks annoy me. I also don't want to see suggestions for later. No matter how well YouTube's site is optimised for Explore users: because I'm an Act user, we don't get along.

Be aware of the underlying business model of the website. And clarify with stakeholders to what extent this also applies to the touchpoint you are to work on. If there is a conflict of goals, you have to clarify it first.

How do you optimise your website?

How do you optimise for »Act«?

By focusing the users' attention on the essentials and minimising their cognitive effort. Typical examples are processes. Paypal's checkout page impressively demonstrates a radical focus on the usage intention Act - and takes different usage contexts into account. The payment provider must seamlessly integrate the payment process into the environment of foreign websites and build trust in the process. In doing so, it must not jeopardise the original purchase transaction under any circumstances. Paypal reduces the level of information and functionality to the essentials. No interaction element on the page offers a way out of the conversion funnel. The decisive metric for Paypal's success is the conversion rate. All elements are aligned with this. After all, this also suits the users. They are interested in the product, not the payment. The faster they can process it, the better.

We find similar patterns when we execute specific functions, go through system dialogues or search for specific information tidbits. Intentions can change every second. Our interface must be able to react to such a change. If we just followed the intention to browse content (Explore), we decide in an instant to find a piece of information. We look for the search slot and hack into the keyboard what we hope to find. Myspace accommodates such a change of intention by turning the user interface completely upside down. What was of interest a moment ago, the platform now hides. It displays the search entry in large letters and presents the result prominently. All in favour of the Intent Act.

Key takeaways
focus on the achievement of goals.
reduced to the essentials.
be comprehensible to users at first glance.
provide users with immediate orientation.
Do not place elements that distract users from their goal.
do everything to ensure that they can reach their destination by the quickest route.

How do you optimise for »Understand«?

By building a deep understanding and thus removing hurdles. To do this, we incentivise and help users to complete their task. We can observe this pattern on product pages. Nike demonstrates with its LeBron series how they address the usage intention Understand. LeBron James is a brand ambassador for Nike and one of the best basketball players of his time. Nike uses this story to convince of the basketball collection and to position itself as a pioneer in the sport of basketball. Elaborately produced films offer insights into the development of the shoes and transform a conventional sportswear into high-tech gadgets. The purchase decision is dramatically charged, it seems like a decision about victory or defeat. Nike thus increases the probability to complete the purchase.

We see this pattern on classic landing pages that introduce topics. It is also found on Wikipedia pages where we expect a deeper engagement with the content. What these websites have in common is that we need to structure content well. Users also move across the page in different ways according to their respective knowledge and experience. The dramaturgy of the individual page therefore comes to the fore. Unlike in a film, however, this is not consumed in a linear fashion. So we sometimes have to enable users to scan our content. They look for the anchors that are decisive for them and promise them the desired progress.

Key takeaways

Websites that address the Understand behaviour pattern should:

focus on the information provided.
Provide users with the relevant information to help them in their task.
take into account the different levels of prior knowledge of the users.
reduce possible barriers when comparing information or weighing up options.

How do you optimise for Explore?

By providing inspiration to users. Let's look at the playback of a video on YouTube as an example. It demonstrates a radical focus on Explore user intent. The longer users consume videos, the higher the advertising revenue. Contrary to Paypal, YouTube profits when users stay longer. YouTube goes a long way to do this. The site lets competing content compete against each other. Users search for the next video while they are still watching it. This increases the cognitive effort enormously. The targeted engagement with a piece of content recedes into the background.

We find similar patterns on Instagram or Pinterest. However, a colourful bouquet of content is not enough. To keep users browsing, the offer must correspond to an area of interest and generate maximum relevance. From »Customers who bought this product also bought...« to the algorithms of TikTok, YouTube or Instagram. Netflix, too, is trying to increase relevance in an unconventional way: With the help of individualised covers, the streaming provider tries to react to users' previously identified preferences. Netflix highlights faces of your favourite actors and chooses the scenery according to your taste. Explosions for action fans, hand-holding for romantics.

Key Takeaways

Websites that address the Explore behavioural pattern should:

offer users inspiring content and functions.
offer users the opportunity to continue their journey.
prevent users from running into a dead-end.

How to align your information architecture with user behaviour

Use our questions to assign your website to one of the three categories. They correspond to the most common patterns of how people pursue their goals - on the web and on digital devices.
Check whether there is a conflict of objectives with the business model behind the page. Is the category compatible with the business model? If applicable, the individual page also opens up new business models.
Deepen your knowledge of intention to use: Find out about the factors that influence the emergence of behavioural intention. Are there any particular hurdles to consider? You can eliminate these factors from becoming obstacles during interaction with your site.
Analyse the context of use: Is it necessary to help with certain information? Does the environment of use have special requirements? How do these change on other devices? If you pay attention to this with your information architecture, you will promote a particularly good user experience. This often makes the difference in competition.
Optimise your page for one of the three categories of user intentions. They give the essential lines: what information you present and with what weighting. The finer elaboration takes into account what you know about the origin of the intention to use and your knowledge of the context of use.

The science behind our guide

In this guide, we will give you some tools to structure web pages. Now you know how to assign your interface to a user category and align your information structure accordingly. You recognise which of the potential contents are relevant and know how to present them on the page. We didn't do all the groundwork for the guide ourselves. Read here what sources we used and what research we did ourselves.

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