GC Web Usability Resolution 2: Think by topic, not owner.

(part 2 of 5)

Historically a common tendency when architecting government websites, especially intranet sites, has been to organize information by the structure of the institution, or rather, by who owns the information. At first glance this can often seem like a logical approach to organizing web content. And although we are getting much better at moving away from this type of web information architecture (IA); there do, however, remain a number of problems with organizing web content by organizational design that we should keep in mind.

Changes to org. structure

As anyone who has worked in the government call tell you, the structure of departments change on a very regular basis. This provides a number of challenges to web teams and users. Firstly, the amount of maintenance it would require to keep the site’s information architecture aligned with organizational structure would cripple a web team’s resources.  Secondly, a web team would need to be informed regularly of these changes (which, in our experiences, happens inconsistently at best). Lastly, users are caught in the informational crossfire – if the site has been changed frequently, then there’s no consistency if they are return users. If the site’s architecture has not been changed, then the information they receive is out of date. It’s a lose-lose situation.

User knowledge of org. structure (or lack thereof!)

An organization site structure requires a lot of background knowledge of the department, or effort to learn the department’s structure. User’s don’t always have the time or interest in doing this. A user wants to find the information they came to seek, whether it be a publication, a tool, or contact information. Regardless of the type of information, they don’t want to waste their time (and, as information architects, we don’t want them to!) stumbling through the links hoping to find what they seek.

To mitigate these issues, and as advised by the TBS Standard on Web Usability, it is better to architect your website by topic or user task rather than org. structure. A well-architected site should enable the addition and removal of site content without having to modify the structure as radically as if it were designed by organization.

This is not to say you should eliminate any mention of the org. structure. It is important to provide your users with a secondary navigation route that is based on the org. structure, especially when designing intranet sites. For instance, create an “About Us” section in the footer with brief descriptions of each Branch in the organization and allow for cross-linking to topic-based content owned by that unit. This will enable users who prefer to navigate by who owns the content, rather than what the content is, to find what they are looking for.

Furthermore, keeping track of org. structure in relation to content ownership, regardless of your IA approach, is something invaluable that will allow a web team and an organization to better manage its web content going forward – so don’t put it aside completely! Keeping track of content ownership will also help you when it comes to web governance. For more information on this topic, read our Usability Resolution 1: Work on governance before you work on anything else.


We all know the true GC new year starts April 1st, but regardless, we thought we would take this opportunity to take stock of the past year in usability across the NCR and bring you five GC web usability new year resolutions. This blog series tackles the following resolutions:

Usability Resolution 1: Work on governance before you work on anything else.
Usability Resolution 2: Think by topic, not who owns the topic.
Usability Resolution 3: Stop trying to pigeon-hole your IA into action-based tasks.
Usability Resolution 4: If you’re the only one who is going to read it, don’t publish it.
Usability Resolution 5: Test for failures, not successes.


Leave us a comment: * Your information is never shared