Back in my PA Consulting days I worked on one project to help a client design their public facing website.

Our aim was to produce a simple, brochure style site that could be further developed over time to be a more interactive forum for customers in the future. We needed to get something together quickly as a stop gap on the road to full blow e-commerce.

I was working with two people from the client company, their head of marketing and their head of technology. Both were very enthusiastic and eager to be involved in the development of the website. To capitalise on their enthusiasm I invited them both to a meeting to help us work out how the Information Architecture for the site would work.

In order to get things started I asked them both to write on post-it notes all of the topics that they thought the website should cover (contact details, product information, company information, etc). I then asked them to stick all the notes on the wall and start organising them into some sort of logical groupings.

The head of technology placed all the notes on the wall in a pyramid arrangement, with the more generic topics at the top (fewer of them) leading to more in-depth topics below (more of them). A typical “tree” structure.

Up until this point the meeting (or workshop) had been progressing along in the same way as they had when ever I’d run similar sessions with other clients, well. But then the head of marketing stood up and said;

“I’m sorry, but I completely disagree with the structure. What you’ve put up makes no sense. You don’t move down a website, you move across a website.”

She proceeded to rearrange the notes (at the head of technologies request) in a structure that started with the generic topics on the left and the more specific topics on the right. Her finished structure was identical to the original pyramid, only moving left to right instead of top to bottom. A tree on it’s side.

This episode (which resulted in heated discussions between the two of them) raised two important learning points for me.

  1. Not all people see or think about things in the same way. I knew this already of course, but this experience really rammed it home to me. The head of marketing just could not see that in fact both arrangements where identical (the cause of the afore mentioned discussions), even though logically they were.
  2. Different people have a different mental model of how websites work, based on their view of the World. I have been drawing IA diagrams for years and all of them have used a top down, tree structure. Mainly because that is how I was shown to draw them, and that is how they are always drawn in textbooks and other documentation. However when you think about it most browsers (that I know of) let you move “back” and “forward” using left and right arrows, not up and down arrows suggesting that you do in fact move across a site rather than down a site.

Ultimately we managed to calm things down a bit and get an agreement on how the site’s IA would be designed. The site went live, the project was a success and everyone was happy.

I still regularly think about that project and the sideways diagrams and can’t help but feel that maybe a sideways metaphor for web navigation may be more accurate than an up and down model.