(I wrote the following blog post for my new employer’s blog – see the original at http://www.compassitesinc.com/blogs/breaking-free-of-the-website-product-mindset-using-real-time-data-and-search/)

In dozens of large-scale website development projects, I have witnessed well-intentioned project teams repeat the same mistake in prioritizing their time, focus and investments.

The primary driver of project mistakes is the incorrect assumption that the finished solution is a deftly structured content product defined – and organised – through comprehensive and internally coherent information architecture (IA).

With this assumption in mind, and correctly recognising their target users will have differing content and task needs and preferences, they prepare user personas and the like, and then map distinct user journeys, in order to identify and test key touch points that create opportunities to meet and exceed user expectations.

Almost as an afterthought, they then plan the implementation of a search tool. In many projects, search is seen as a fail-safe, user-driven discovery mechanism should the IA and carefully crafted user journeys be unsuited to a given user’s task or objectives.

As a consequence of this approach, the bulk of project preparation and planning is spent ensuring excellent content quality and coverage to meet user needs, as captured in the personas. The majority of the remaining time is spent refining and testing the IA.

Only as launch nears is some time invested ensuring search is functional and results pages offer an efficient and intuitive discovery context.

New understanding of Cognition

Recent research has confirmed what many have long believed. Individuals have very distinct cognitive styles, which dramatically alters their preferences for digital content presentation and consumption.

Individuals can fall into the following categories (which are by no means exhaustive):

  • Impulsive v. Deliberative – Impulsive individuals prefer to make quick decisions, and don’t wish to be over-burdened with information – they just want access to the information they consider key to their decision. Deliberative individuals, on the other hand, prefer a more measured approach to decision making, and want to explore options in detail before making a decision.
  • Visual v. Verbal – Visual individuals prefer imagery over reams of text, and respond well to strong, emotive images, whereas verbal individuals prefer chunks of text and numbers – unadorned by troublesome images – so they can quickly decide for themselves (using data) how they feel about the company, product or service.
  • Analytical v. Holistic – Analytic individuals prefer to access the technical details in all their glory, even if they do not have a full understanding of their importance, whereas Holistic individuals prefer to see a concise statement of ‘the bottom line’.

It is important to note that an individual’s cognitive style may change, depending on the task or consumption context. In one consumption context, say buying a new car, the preferred style may be analytical, but in a different context, such as planning a holiday, it might be holistic or even visual.

What replaces the IA?

As our knowledge of cognitive styles increases, it becomes apparent that static IAs and single-form content are insufficient to achieve a truly user-centred, and user-friendly, navigation experience.

Undoubtedly, it is important to ensure that your content is – and will remain – curated to the highest quality and relevancy. However, it is clear that multiple variants of each content item/asset will be required, to meet the specific presentation preferences of different user types.

Static IAs, however, are poorly suited to presenting large content offerings, much less multiple content display options.

The solution is to architect search technologies into the website design from day one.

Search functionality should permeate each and every page of content, though not just as a search bar or other user interaction. Rather, search should – quite literally – be embedded into each and every hyperlink within the site.

A hyperlink should not contain a static pointer to a URL. Instead, it should contain metadata about the target page (i.e. its core content element), which is used to trigger a search each and every time a user clicks on it.

This search activity creates the opportunity to blend both the individual’s expressed intention (i.e. the content item they wish to view, as denoted in the URL’s metadata) with real-time behavioural data generated during the user’s visit (such as the navigation labels, headlines, images and pages the user selected previously).

A more fluid experience

Under these circumstances, it will be possible to discern not only the reason and context for the user’s visit (such as to compare multiple products or make a purchase), but also their cognitive style (by analysing which styles of content presentation led the user to take specific actions within the site).

As a result, it is possible to dynamically alter – and optimise – the basic structure and content of the website.

Irrelevant navigation options (or even entire areas of the site) can be hidden, while more pertinent links can be highlighted or promoted. Content items can dynamically optimised, either by selecting the appropriate content item variant (if in a fixed format) or, alternatively, applying the template most suited to the user’s cognitive style.

Adopting this fluid, search-driven approach to website design and content and service presentation will result in a more compelling and intuitive customer experience, which in turn will improve business outcomes.