A good website is like a good Christmas tree… ‘Ah’ I hear you say, here comes the tenuous festive metaphor. Not so, you cynical lot, but a seasonally-apt reminder that good websites are predicated on structure, not tinsel and baubles.
And notice that I say ‘good’ website, not ‘great’ website, or ‘fantastic’ website. ‘Tis the season to be hyperbolic but pursuit of the online ‘wow’ factor has caused many a website project to crash and burn.
Your ambition should be a good website. Something that will last – and accumulate value over time, like a good Bordeaux. (Okay! Trees, wine… to many metaphors already.)
So let’s get back to that Christmas tree…
The reference to websites and Christmas trees actually came up in a meeting where we were discussing the structure of a large site and considering the dynamics involved when finalising the Information Architecture. On the one hand, there’s the user, who wants to get in, do the thing they want to do and get out again. They don’t want to hunt for anything (maybe a bit of light foraging) or translate company-speak. Then there are company structures, business configurations and hierarchies… Maybe a little internal politics?
Add to this a layer of reluctance, or exhaustion, from people who find themselves in some way responsible for the content or its creation. Yet another conversation about the top level navigation, deeper structure and labelling rationale? Yeesh!
So, how much does it really matter? You buy your Christmas tree – any size and shape will do – and then you cover it with lovely decorations and lights that wink and glitter at users. How much does the underlying shape matter once all that stuff is covering it?
Okay people, here’s the deal: a website is for life, not just for Christmas. It has to serve you well and grow as your organisation grows. Overlong or stunted branches can cause the whole thing to topple. You can stuff a fairy on the top but if the tree’s got too many branches or too few, if it leans to one side or has a kink in the trunk – you’re screwed.
And, if the structure is poor, there is even more temptation to layer the whole construction with even more tinsel and shiny bits. Lots and lots of ornaments (or pages and the odd bit of Flash) may distract from the underlying problem – a rubbish shape.
So whatever stage your at with your current web project – whether you’re starting new, or going in for a little pruning – take a step back and look at that structure. Is it strong and straight? Does it make sense? Is it pleasing to the eye? Is there room for other branches to grow? Growth is the final metaphorical twist in this seasonal story…
You can buy a Christmas tree that haa no roots. It’s designed with built in obsolescence. After Christmas you chuck it out. Next year, you get a new one. But a good Christmas tree / website needs to be nurtured and should be bought to last. It needs soil and water (or content and creativity). It needs looking after.