Jun 17, 2016

Go from Messy to MECE! Creating Great District Website Navigation

What happens when you go to a website and can’t find what you need? If you’re like most of us, you’ll spend less than a minute searching before giving up.

That’s true of your parents, students and community members, too. If they are highly motivated (e.g., they really need those enrollment forms) and fairly sure the information is truly available, they may try harder. But in most cases, your website visitors will quickly assume the information they want isn’t there or wasn’t that important anyway, and give up. If they are consistently frustrated when visiting your website, they’ll simply stop coming at all.

That means less engagement, less involvement, and more frustrated calls to school and district staff.

Good navigation is key—maybe the key—to a good website. Your navigation structure is the roadmap for your site; good navigation gets your users where they want to go quickly and easily. It tells them at a glance how information is organized, what they can expect to find and what your school or district values and prioritizes.

If your navigation isn’t working for your audience, it may be time to try MECE.

Building a Better MECE Trap

Designing navigation for a school district is challenging. The audience is large and varied (employees, students, parents, new families, the broader community, taxpayers, vendors) and the amount of information to get across is enormous (everything from names and addresses of schools to transportation schedules, district financial plans and the score of Friday night’s football game!). How can all of this information be organized in a way that enables any user to know, within a few seconds, exactly where to find what he/she came looking for?

Many districts’ websites develop and grow over time, and navigation gets added to and modified organically. This often results in overlapping menus, redundant links and hard-to-find information.

So, if you are revamping, or if you’re lucky enough to have a clean slate with a new website, here’s an approach that might help. It’s called “MECE”. MECE stands for Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. It is a process for organizing a large amount of complex information into orderly, manageable groups, making sure those groups have no overlap (they’re mutually exclusive) and cover everything (collectively exhaustive). MECE was made famous by management consultants at McKinsey and Co., who use MECE at the beginning of a case to break down complex problems into an organized list of smaller, digestible parts. But it’s also very useful for building website navigation.

Collectively Exhaustive

Start with Collectively Exhaustive. What is the full list of all of the information that your district website should contain? Get together with a group of stakeholders and brainstorm. Check out other district’s websites. Look at your current website. Write down every piece of information that your website needs to contain. You might do this using a word web on a SmartBoard, Post-It Notes on the wall, or using index cards spread across the conference table.

Order doesn’t matter at this point. Just make sure your list is exhaustive – it isn’t missing anything. Your list might look something like this:

Mutually Exclusive

Now for the “Mutually Exclusive” part. It’s time to group that (probably very long) list into major categories (primary navigation) and sub categories (secondary navigation). Primary navigation on a website shouldn’t have more than ten categories; beyond that, it gets hard to absorb and too hard to fit on a screen. If you are using drop-down navigation, each primary navigation item should contain fewer than ten secondary navigation items.  If you are using are using separate pages for navigation, users can handle around twenty secondary navigation items.  (A good article on navigation types is here).  In either case, these categories should be mutually exclusive, meaning any one piece of information fits into only one of the categories with no overlap.

This is where a number of district websites fall down. Many districts use “user type” as one of the organizing principals for their main navigation, with categories like “Parents” and “Students” and “Community”. But those sites also have “Departments” and “About the District” in their navigation. In this situation, a parentwants to know about bus schedules, does she look under “Parents” or under“Transportation” within “Departments”? If a community memberwants to know how the district is performing, does he look under “Community” or “About the District”? Navigation organized in this way breaks the “Mutually Exclusive” rule and so causes confusion.

If you have used index cards or Post-It Notes to gather your initial lists, you can now use them to start organizing. Each item should go into one, and only one, pile.

Suggested Navigation

Districts do vary in many ways, so there’s no one organization that will be perfect for all, but here is an example of primary navigation that we’ve seen work well for many:

A few live district sites that have well-organized navigation are The School District of South Orange and Maplewood and Park Ridge-Niles School District 64.

You’ll notice that not every piece of information from the “Collectively Exhaustive” list is a navigation item.  Many of these items will belong on one of the “Departments” pages.  In future blogs, we’ll go deeper into department content and organization— a critical part of a great district website.

MECE is also helpful for building school website navigation. We’ll explore school sites in another future post.