A Guide to Different Types of Website Structures - Site Design and Structure

Also Read


A Web page’s structural elements are the basic parts that Internet users often expect to see when they visit a website. Understanding the location and purpose of the main structures can help you relay information about your small business and products or services in ways that attract visitors and retain their interest.

Page Header

The header is the area that runs horizontally across the top of a page and is commonly the same on almost every page on the site. It helps make a website visually identifiable to visitors. Similar to a letter heading or letterhead at the top of stationery, the page header displays information about the person or company controlling the website via title text, logo, background images, tagline, or a combination of these elements. Other elements often placed in the header include a site-search box, shopping cart link, site-access link, and navigation tools.

Navigation Tools

Web-page navigation tools are located in several areas outside of the header including the right or left sides, center, or bottom of the page. They offer page-to-page navigation or instant jump to the top of the current page. Designs feature text- or image-based one-click links organized standalone or in tab, drop-down or pop-up menu, and list layouts. Some sites also feature breadcrumb trails — links to every page you would visit to reach the current page organized left-to-right on a horizontal line in the header or top center of the page in the order of your movement through the site if you were to follow the site’s organizational hierarchy.

Sidebar Columns

Sidebar columns, also known as sidebars, run vertically along the left or right side of Web pages. They usually provide primary or secondary site navigation links and information you want to emphasize such as contact details or important updates about the site operator or the topic of the site. Other elements often placed in sidebars include personal or partner advertising, a site search box, and search filter tools. Sidebars usually display information as an unbroken column or a column divided into sections or boxes.

Primary Content

The primary content area on a page is traditionally located to the left or right of a sidebar or between two sidebars. It provides the main page information you want a visitor to focus on. The primary content area features a main title and content formatted into concise text paragraphs, images, videos or combination elements divided by spaces or subheadings. It also often features elements previously mentioned such as a breadcrumb trail and jump navigation links, as well as updated information such as content publication or update dates and links to websites relevant to the content or that you think would interest visitors.

Page Footer

The footer runs horizontally across the bottom of pages. It provides navigation links visitors might find useful, as well as details about a page or website such as a logo, copyright date, website operator’s name, page author name, legal statements, and links to the site terms of use and privacy policies. Other elements often placed in the footer include links to the site operator’s contact page or email address, job postings page, feedback-form page, support page, and frequently asked questions page.

Developing and Testing Content

Usability research helps organizations understand user needs, identify potential issues, and generate ideas for improvement. While usability testing is often used to evaluate a website’s user interface (UI), this method is also invaluable for discovering the best way to present information on your website. By paying attention to how people read, interpret, and access content, you gain a greater understanding of how to communicate, structure, and format information.
It’s great when sites have good navigation. But too often we see the user experience fail at the content level: People can navigate to the content but don’t understand it. Analysis shows that people often use websites to collect, compare, and choose products or services. Have users evaluate your digital copy so that articles and information match their needs and expectations. People read online content differently than printed material.
The usability study methodologies for evaluating UI versus content are fairly similar. However, there are nuances to the methodologies that are worth considering when the primary goal of the usability study is evaluating digital copy.
Below are suggestions for how to get the most out of your research.

Tips for Testing Content on Websites

1. Avoid recruiting proxy users: In every usability study, you should always aim to test your designs with representative users. However, when testing content, your recruiting criteria should be even more stringent. Take extra care to recruit the right participants.
Those people evaluating the information on your site should truly be representative of your user population: they should have the same mindset, situation, AND user goals. The flexibility you have with recruitment depends on the use case and type of information on your site. You may have some leeway with general e-commerce sites, but for content-rich, research-intensive activities or for B2B websites, you must find people who fit the exact circumstance.
In other words, the scenario that you give people should match the current problem they need to solve. Unlike regular UI-focused studies, content-focused studies should not ask test participants to “pretend” or “imagine” to be in a situation. The risk of invalidating the study is much higher for content because the participants’ motivation is much more important for obtaining accurate insights.
It is impossible for proxy users to instantly acquire knowledge or know the situation well enough to assess the value of the content. For example, people who have just been diagnosed with a serious medical condition are more likely to relate to the content accurately than someone who is asked to pretend to be interested in the disease.
It’s not good enough to recruit participants who generally fit the demographic profile, such as by age, gender, income level, and location. Such criteria are too broad to give you deep insight. General recruitment criteria won’t cut it. You must find people who are actually in the process of researching the information you are evaluating.
2. Be aware of the limitations of unmoderated studies: Unmoderated studies are done without the facilitator present: Participants work on their own. This method can be useful for getting user feedback on narrow parts of the site such as workflow or snippets of information. However, when trying to discover how people conduct research, compare offerings, and make decisions, the best approach is to conduct a moderated study, where the facilitator is present.
Content studies tend to have long stretches of time when the user is simply scanning page after page—in silence. When left alone (such as in an online unmoderated situation) users may feel awkward and wonder whether they’re being helpful. Without proper feedback and reassurance, participants often alter their behavior by approaching the task in a more superficial manner. Task times are often shorter for online studies than in traditional test settings. When on their own, participants assume that the goal is to work quickly, not realistically.
Also, the facilitator can ask the user for clarifications. With unmoderated studies, you miss opportunities to ask personalized, user-tailored follow-up questions. Even though participants are instructed to think out loud, they often forget to explain their actions and thoughts.
3. Give tasks that are tailored for each individual: In most traditional usability studies, researchers follow a prepared script and give study participants prescript tasks to perform. For content, testing minimize your reliance on a script. Spend time at the beginning of each session to discuss the participant’s situation and make sure the task scenario matches their exact circumstance. It’s OK to prepare some more generic tasks prior to the study, but be willing to modify or craft new ones on the spot as you learn more about the participant’s situation, and as the session unfolds. You want to give participants the freedom to research a topic as they please, so you uncover what’s important and what’s not. Don’t rigidly control the activities or force an unrealistic task. The more pertinent the tasks, the more vested people are at completing them.
The best results occur when study participants forget about the testing environment and immerse themselves in the activity rather than merely going through the motions. Participants can sometimes “fake” their way through simple pass or fail activities (e.g. Find the contact name for Press Relations), but such is not the case for exploratory tasks were having a scenario that precisely matches the person’s current situation and emotional state is critical.
4. Remember, there is no right answer: Unlike well-specified tasks (e.g., “Find the opening hours for the Fremont public library”), open-ended tasks don’t have a definitive answer. Open-ended tasks are meant to assess content quality and relevance. Use this time to learn how people explore and research, what questions they have, how they expect information to be communicated, and whether your site meets their needs.
Consider competitive testing: Sometimes you can get insights into your users’ needs by allowing them to search freely on the web or by letting them visit competitors’ sites rather than restricting them to your own site. Don’t worry that you’re wasting precious testing time: if users are truly representative, the insights will often be revelatory. And you can always limit the free exploration to a small part of your session.
5. Set expectations for time allocations: Open-ended tasks have vague endpoints, often leaving participants wondering how to best spend their time. At the beginning of the reach session, tell people to work at their own pace and not to worry about the time.
6. Get comfortable with silence: Expect long stretches of quiet time while the participant focuses on processing the information. Don’t appear impatient. Avoid being interruptive or fidgety. Injecting too many questions while users work breaks their concentration and alter their behavior. If you need to ask a question mid-task, keep it neutral, such as “What are you thinking?” or “What are you looking for?” Once users answer, let them continue. Resist the temptation to blast questions. Save questions for the end. When user testing is conducted well, users behave authentically and the study generates realistic findings.