I know this question is extremely broad but I would like to know the steps a UX'er would take in order to understand what content there is on a site and then how to organize this content in terms of navigation. How do you know which content should be grouped with what? How do you know which items should be in the main navigation?

11 Answers 11


I think the question you should be asking is what should be my content strategy and how should I define that to drive my site navigation..

That said, there are multiple steps in defining your content strategy :

Plan your content:

This is the initial phase of any site and should involve the questions such as the objective of the site, the user group which you are targeting, the primary audience,the secondary audience and so on. This is the most important part of your content strategy since it defines your entire site flow and also your navigation. Content planning has the following steps :

  1. Discovery : Discovery is about taking what you already know about your client and using it to work what content they need. By getting your client involved in the discovery phase, you can gain insight into what content your client requires, how they see their content being organized and why they think it should be organized in this fashion. The following techniques can be very useful during the discovery sessions:

    • Mind-mapping: I recommend looking at this excellent article to get inputs on how to use Mind maps to define your content strategy and define your primary information architecture and site focus. To quote the article > By mindmapping, you can organize your keywords in buckets, just like

      you’re organizing your content. If you have a large exhaustive list of keywords that you’d like to optimize your site for, you can now work those into your mindmaps so you can be certain you are covering all of the different keyword buckets that revolve around your product. In this way, you can target both primary, secondary, and long tail keywords.

    I also recommend looking at this excellent UX booth article on getting additional inputs on how to construct an effective mind map to prioritize your content

enter image description here

  • Sketchboarding: This will help you take a more detailed look into your site’s structure as it allows the team to walk to the site flow and potential navigation by the use of interactive aides to see what are users searching for and what content should be surfaced to the top. I recommend looking at this excellent article about sketchboarding and its place in the UX design process for additional inputs.

    1. Requirements analysis : The second step after your discovery phase is defining your requirements and ensuring that your content and navigation meet the requirements. Some of the requirements might be legal in nature such as the requirement to show a disclaimer up front or some of the requirements might be creative in nature such the need to show large banner images up front which aided with your information from the content discovery phase will define the navigation and site flow.

Content mapping

From the previous stage you would have got a good idea of the content you have with potential user flow. Use this information to map the content by creating wireframes or content maps which will help define the interactions between content flows and also help define the user navigation such as: User lands on home page --> clicks on banner --> clicks on product --> adds product to shopping cart --> Goes to the cart page and checkouts --> makes a payment --> is presented with a confirmation message

I recommend looking at this article on additional inputs on the benefits on creating content maps and using them to define your navigation flow. To quote the article

Creating a content map should only take a matter of minutes, and is a great precursor to a site map.

Going beyond internal web pages, your content map should include content like emails and newsletters, as well as externally hosted blog posts and videos, etc. This provides a holistic view of the flow of content around your website. enter image description here

Present your findings

In this stage present your preliminary findings and wireframes and content maps to your design team to highlight the navigation flow and what influenced your design

Here are some additional articles for you to read

  1. The Heart of Content Strategy

  2. Content Strategy & Storytelling

  3. Get Your Content Strategy Out of the Drawer with Governance

  • +1 for a superb answer and having a different angle than mine. Great read! Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 19:39

I've solved this task using card sorting in a low tech, hands on session with my client and/or users.

Write down all menu items onto index cards and let the participants sort the cards in a way they think it is correct.

You will find a lot more information on the internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Card_sorting

  • 2
    I agree with Stefan, Card Sorting is a great way to better understand what users want to organize and structure your navigation. @user25316 My company used Card Sorting with our Intranet Redesign and it proved effective. We used a card sorting program that allowed internal users to place items within groups. We even recorded users to watch facial expressions as they provided more insight on items/groups. You should check out Steve Kurg's books on Usability & Testing which provide loads of information on card sorting and various other topics. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 13:19
  • I would advise against Card Sorting as, even when done well, it is often abstracted away from the real tasks of the site. Instead I'd recommend seeing what tasks the site carries out and prioritise site aims with internal stakeholders. Commented Jan 30, 2013 at 8:48
  • @Stewart Dean: Just curious... have you encountered bad experiences while using Card Sorting? If not card sorting then what method would you prefer to use/recommend? I've tried many methods and Card Sorting worked for my company's needs and really helped organize our website, it was a complete mess prior to the card sort. Commented Jan 30, 2013 at 12:43
  • I use user task analysis, existing behaviour and stats combined with understanding the business goals. This is enough to build a hypothesis which can be tested. For example for John Lewis the structure was a very large spread sheet that I altered to better match the way people expected to find items. We used a 'panel' of objects to do this. Card sorting with users or internally would have ignored the tasks and analysis. You get a set of 'views' from different people. I liken card sorting for navigation to given users a set of functionality and asking which they'd like. Not a good idea. Commented Jan 30, 2013 at 14:00
  • @Stewart Dean: I can understand your points and how your methods proved most effective. I wouldn't say throw Card Sorting out the window, it can prove productive. If it was used for a rather large company it may not prove effective due to many opinions/thoughts and so fourth. At my place of business before we conducted our card sort we held a survey which helped us build our card sort. However there are many ways to approach this with a solution. You just need to find what works in your best interest. Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 12:50

Understanding the content

To be able to understand the content currently available on the site you can't only rely on the navigation menu, tagging systems or search which is where you start. Get your view of where content lives before you ask the users and editors of content today. You need to interview and observe content editors and content consumers since users say one thing and do another. Questions to ask is how they find what they need (navigation, tagging, search) and if they archive content somewhere else after a period of time, after project closure or some other time or task interval. Don't forget to ask how they organize content today when they creates and edits content. It will give you an idea of how they work today.

When you have a clear picture of where content lives, how it is structured and classified, and for how long it's time to document and schedule a workshop. Invite users from different departments and different roles and have a workshop on content management, and see if what you discovered (in your documented report) is the same as the workshop tells you. If it is - you can move ahead.

How to organize this content in terms of navigation

As many have told you already, the best way to organize content is through Card Sorting. You can use open card sorting or closed card sorting. I would suggest you start with an open card sorting where users are asked to organize content together and label it. That way you get the correct terms the company culture are using. It saves you a lot of work as you move along if you use the same terms your users are used to.

You would probably need a couple of iterations of card sorting sessions where you can end with a closed card sort. A closed card sort have predetermined labels which users are supposed to organize given content into.

Which content should be grouped with what

From the card sorting sessions you have bot the labels and content that goes within the label in a nice hierachical structure. But don't make the mistake of having to strict hierarchy since users need to find content related to each other which hierarchical doesn't fit. Those graph edges are your relational/supplimental navigation which usually is a part of the hierachical navigation structure but are not bound to it. A level 4 element could very well link to a level 2 element as a relational link.

enter image description here

Which items should be in the main navigation

The elements following the root node of your hierachy should be in the global navigation. And if you have done your content analysis and card sorting correct - the global navigation should be very obvious and easy for your users to understand.


enter image description here

  • 1
    Very descriptive answer Benny :)
    – Andy
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 10:28
  • @Andy Thanks! I hope 'Reloaded' feels the same way. :-) Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 10:35
  • @Reloaded Love the question. This could be tha beginning of a new book since it's important. Great that you posted this question enabling me to answer something I think really matters! Commented Mar 22, 2013 at 20:06
  • 1
    @BennySkogberg ;) get writing!
    – Reloaded
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 16:52

Usually there are client objectives like, "we need to show the following features first", provided in the brief or discussed in workshops.

Then there are user objectives, "I want to find out where to buy this", derived from personas based on user research.

A balance of these two factors should influence your first attempt at creating a nav. The best way to get agreement is to get data from both clients and potential end users is in a card sorting exercise.

I have used online tools such as http://www.optimalworkshop.com/optimalsort.htm and https://www.bagelhint.com/

But a physical stack of cards and 5 mins of time works just as well.


Specifically addressing the need to understand the content, there are two steps you probably need to go through if you haven't already.

The first is to do a thorough content audit, so that you're aware of the breadth and depth of the content you're going to need to organise. Navigation solutions are likely to vary dependent on the volume of content you have to sift through, and in addition performing an audit may allow you to pattern-spot, suggesting some natural categories or hierarchies you can work with later.

The content audit should not only include a full listing of the content available, but should probably also pull in whatever usage data is available (server logs, analytics) so you can get a good idea of which content is currently being used - which might suggest some measure of importance you can use later when determining priority.

The second is to work with a subject matter expert. The major advantage of this approach is that you can get an understanding of the content from a holistic perspective - which pieces of content are important, as well as which pieces fit into typical tasks that a user might be expected to accomplish. A SME can also highlight various different ways that the pieces of content might be related, though you need to take care not to adopt their mental model entirely (which may be subject to bias due to their familiarity). SMEs also have the benefit of their domain knowledge, which may be useful for actually understanding the content itself (potentially a roadblock in a technical field).

Becoming familiar with the content in this way will hopefully allow you to make better decisions when you come to building your navigation.

  • Identifying the problem is the first step to solving it. This answer is way more appropriate that suggesting to sort priorities with a client, as they will most likely push their own agenda, not the users' agenda, aka "but our own staff likes to have a quick link to the daily cantina menu on the front page".
    – kontur
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 14:18

Have the goal in mind of being able to get to valuable information with as few taps/clicks as possible.

Optimise for those who enter through the inner page and start to explore your website from there...

Learn how the end users would sort and group categories/content as someone suggested above.

In this area Lou's book is most valuable http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596000356.do


I have organised many different sites and have learnt a few things from that process, some of which are counter to what is being said by others.

To organise a site you must first know all the content you have, a full content audit and 'as is' site map generated by hand is vital. You can automate this process to generate the end result but this skips the vital step of understanding the existing content.

Secondly you need to understand what tasks the users are doing and how it relates to what they do in real life. Talk to real users and draw up user scenarios that explain what they do. Use site analytics to see what people are currently doing (if there is a current site). The site should be organised according to task EVEN if it is a content based site.

Internal workshops are useful to understand what the business want - it's vital to get a clear set of site objectives. Prioritisation of functionality can be done using post it notes and people sketching up 'home pages' and telling stories.

I don't use card sorting and have found its output to test badly when a site has to be used. Often it creates sites that a clumped around similar sounding things, but not real usage patterns. For that and other reasons I would not recommend using it as a primary way to uncover the Information Architecture for a site.

I would recommend using tools like TreeJacker to test pure navigation structures with end users.


Because you're redesigning a site and not putting together something from scratch, I would not merely rely on your own experience/impression of the site. I think there are a few key tools everyone should use when redesigning...

1) What links should my navigation consist of?

If your site is content-driven and serves advertisements as its source of revenue, then it's all about content. There's not likely to be a target page you want the user to end up on, like you would on an ecommerce site. With this in mind, for a content-based site I would focus on what the Top Content analytics data says and order my content by popularity. For an ecommerce site I would use Google Analytic's goals to measure the effectiveness of different routes customers take through my site which leads them to purchases.

2) Where is a good place for my navigation?

Google also offers In-Page Analytics which can help you determine the most effective UI elements within your web site design. Changing the color of a navigation item or link can make a big difference. You can measure that kind of thing using this tool.


Most of the answers have covered the strategy for designing the information architecture with respect to how a user might navigate through the information. I would just like to add a point here that relates to adaptive content design (Karen McGrane talks a lot about this). Because there is also the issue of making the content flexible and adaptable enough that you don't have to tear up your navigation everything the content of the website changes, and this should be a consideration in the redesign of the navigation as well.


I like to stick with data first, and augment with human behavior through heuristic evaluation later.

I do this because when dealing with a team - and supervisors that have a stake in the project - how information is organized is often handled emotionally. Certain VPs and SVPs like to see certain things at the top because it "looks good". So using data means that the emotional part can be taken out of the equation - sort of. Bear with me.

Data first. Analytics will tell you what people click on the most, and will help prioritize the main items. The downside of this is that people might click on those things the most right now because of poor, flawed or incomplete navigation.

Ref: O'Reilly Information Architecture Book (Polar Bear book)

So next we find out what people are SEARCHING for on the site/app. This can help to determine what people couldn't find and therefore needed to actually SEARCH for.

Ref: http://www.uie.com/articles/time_search/

Both of these methods still have some weaknesses. Many studies seem to show that there are commonly two types of people - those who SEARCH and those who CLICK.

After these things (though some might say BEFORE these things) your team/company needs to determine what goals/actions you want people to do when they visit your site/app.

So now you have data on what people are and are not doing on the site. You have your orders from the boss on what people need to do on the site.

At this point you can introduce the card sorting techniques with the team. But now, armed with your research, you can help your team (and higher ups) see what users are looking for and what your company needs them to do.

Ref: [card sorting links above]

Now that you have navigation in place, it is time for some heuristic evaluation. This will iron out the details.

Ref: http://www.nngroup.com/topic/heuristic-evaluation/

Now you tweak and go live. (In a perfect world! Yeah! Good job!)

I would then suggest going the extra mile and setting up funnels in Google Analytics (or the tracking mechanism of your choice) and make sure people are reaching their goals.

And finally, I feel this is analysis that never ends. This might be me personally but I believe this is something that deserves a small amount of attention on a regular basis to ensure your navigation success.


I could give you a simple rule: try to make the navigation hierarchy system\links such that every part of the website could be accessible with at the max 3 links\clicks.

  • 3
    What is your justification that any more than three clicks to reach a navigation item is bad usability.
    – Mervin
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 18:21
  • I didn't said bad usability. if logically cannot achieve page in 3-4 clicks then nothing wrong in it. Just user will experience more page reloads, which here in UX wanted to make easy user experience. Also, auto-open or mouse-over events can expand to some menus which can be used to reduce the number of clicks or page reloads.
    – jaczjill
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 18:41
  • Hey, try just this site with that 3-click rule. Mostly you will be able to navigate wherever you want.
    – jaczjill
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 18:47
  • 1
    Maybe so but it doesnt still justify your statement. When you make a statement like "try to make the navigation hierarchy system\links such that every part of the website could be accessible with at the max 3 links\clicks." please justify it with reasoning preferably research or user studies
    – Mervin
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 18:55
  • 1
    We are talking about different user behaviours here... if you want to search for a specific result, then the less clicks the better; if you want to browse, then as long as content is useful/meaningful, then the user will tolerate it better. I think there is a general rule of thumb that people lose interest after 3-5 click, much the same way that people usually look at the top search results and don't follow very heavily nested navigation. It is better to test rather than simply assume though, and no rule will fit every type of website and users anyway.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 23:13

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