The Politics of Hierarchy: Excerpt from Site Maps
“The politics of hierarchy” was a sub-heading in the site maps chapter of the first edition. Though the slight recursion implied tickles me, it’s the notion that site maps can trigger a discussion reavealing organizational politics that keeps the diagram interesting to me. It’s not just a little strange that some boxes and lines representing web content can force an organization to bare its soul.
Here’s a revamped (though as of yet unedited) version of that section. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!
The politics of hierarchy
Creating a structure for a web site brings out the worst in organizational politics, which is why so many web sites—especially in the early days—were organized around corporate structure. To validate the design of a new structure, you may need to bring all the different players to the table. With teams consisting of people from every part of the organization, everyone frowns at seeing “their” content buried deep in the site while someone else’s content is at the surface.
Your skills as a facilitator will be challenged. The introduction to this book describes with some general techniques for dealing with conflict in design, but here are a few specific to site maps:
- It’s not your content: The desire to “own” something in an organization can overshadow the true need. In this case, while different people may be responsible for creating, managing, and updating the content, it really belongs to the people using the content. If the content is not presented in a way that’s meaningful or legible to them, it doesn’t matter who “owns” it.
- Contrary to vision: A good design process will establish a purpose or vision for each page. This singular summary of what a page is “supposed to do” can be a powerful mechanism for weeding out requests that don’t contribute to that vision.
- Not everything can go on the home page: Stakeholders may wonder why everything isn’t linked from the home page. Your explanation needs to clarify that burdening the home page with a link to every piece of content (or every area) will yield an unusable home page.
- Users don’t enter through the home page: Reminding stakeholders that at least half the entry into their site comes from search, not from visiting the home, can encourage them to think broadly about the role of the home page.
- There are multiple navigation systems: A good navigation strategy includes multiple mechanisms for browsing the site. A single navigation mechanism (say, “topical navigation”) can not realistically provide access to every area of the site.
- Here’s an example…: Use examples (both good and bad) from around the web to show what happens when content and structure don’t play well together. While a web site can’t tell us everything about the design decisions behind it, we can speculate about how it came to be.
It can be easy, as a designer, to dismiss organizational politics: all you can do is point out the problems, not solve them. You’re a designer of products, not a therapist. As described in the first chapter, politics can be an obstacle to project completion or a catalyst for compromise. As designer you can position yourself outside the fray (align yourself with the product or with the target audience, I don’t care) and facilitate the process to do what’s best for the project.