Why Your Menu Shouldn’t Match Your Org Chart

"It's a trap!" meme-style graphic of Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars.

Yesterday in a meeting with a client, we were discussing the challenges of organizing a website for an organization with a lot of internal teams. The programs are one person or a team of people who literally make up the organization. The organization wouldn’t get anything done without them. Usually , every program wants their own “real estate” on the site too.

And yet, your “average” person rarely thinks about—or, frankly, is interested in—how a nonprofit organizes itself internally.

This felt like the moment to jump in with a truism about websites. I said something like, “you know, there are a lot of good ways to organize websites, but if the website navigation matches the org chart, you know something’s gone wrong.” In many ways, this is the corollary to “you are not your user.”

The easiest and most obvious way for someone inside an organization to group information is usually by some bespoke internal structure. When I’m doing card sorts with people, I often let them do a sort based on their internal structure just to get it out of their system. To be clear: that structure is not bad. It’s just for a different purpose: organizing people, work, and movements. It’s not for organizing some folders of content.

And this morning, I realized that deep down inside, we all know this already. Here’s the example that gives it away: We don’t put the “Donate” page in a “Development” or “Fundraising” submenu. (At least I sure I hope not!) The donate button should be clearly visible, probably in the top-right corner, and labeled “Donate”.

“Donate” is the easiest and most common example of a nonprofit website visitor task. It’s clearly framed for someone outside the organization in the way they think about it. It’s not “source of income” like the accountant thinks or “visitor engagement” like development or comms might approach it. It’s an action for someone supporting a nonprofit.

So when it’s time to reorganize your nonprofit menu, don’t fall for the trap! Whether it’s engaging on a specific issue, accessing a particular tool or resource, or making a donation, visitors don’t care about who made it or processed it. They care about how it relates to them and what it’s called in the language they use every day. And chances are that has nothing to do with your org chart.

Update 25 Jan, 2023: Thanks to David Glick on LinkedIn who pointed me to Conway’s Law:

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

Melvin E. Conway

Conway’s Law is classically applied to software design, but the example of website organization is tightly related and even comes up in the linked Wikipedia article:

An example of the impact of Conway’s Law can be found in the design of some organization websites. Nigel Bevan stated in a 1997 paper [PDF], regarding usability issues in websites: “Organizations often produce web sites with a content and structure which mirrors the internal concerns of the organization rather than the needs of the users of the site.”

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