Have you looked at the weather.com site lately? It has just undergone a significant redesign in response to information gathered by understanding its users. The site is also one of the most visited sites on the Web, attracting weather nuts as well as ordinary people who want to know if they should carry an umbrella or dig out the snow shovel by tomorrow. Each day people look at between 7 and 10 million page views on the weather site, infinitely more than we would ever expect at a site featuring technical documentation. Nonetheless, we have much to learn from the information architects of weather.com.
Weather.com was featured in the December 2000 issue of Fast Company (FC issue 41, page 186 or http://www.fastcompany.com/online/41/weathering.html) in an article, “Weathering the Storm,” by Chuck Salter. Salter reports that nearly 12 million people consult the site each day. Unlike other dot coms, weather.com is growing rapidly and maintaining its profitability.
It’s especially significant that we find a very tight integration at weather.com between the technology experts responsible for the site performance and delivery and those responsible for the site content. Too often our discussion with technical publications staff points to problems between the Web owners and the content developers. The publications staff develop a vision of the end-user accessing information on the Web but find themselves unable to influence the delivery environment. The technologists pursue presentations that are unlikely to support ease of access to the information that end-users need. As a consequence, users don’t stay, and they don’t come back, unlike the weather site.
Weather.com delivers over 300,000 pages of content, nearly a million pages if you count all the weather maps. Yet, the site makes all this content accessible so that people will keep coming back to find what they need. In the site’s latest version, readers can customize their view of the site, creating a My Weather home page that presents reports for selected locations and six weather maps of their choice. In addition, access to additional information, such as airline schedules, is simply a click away. Bill Hackos and I set up our personal weather page just yesterday afternoon. Now we can track Denver and get information about additional cities (for example, Paris for our younger son, Washington DC for our older son).
In the site redesign, the information architects studied users: what they looked for, why they visited, and why they returned (or didn’t). David Davila, the site’s information architect, designed a hub and spoke model for the site’s information. The users are at the center (the hub) of the model, surrounded by information resources related to their previous choices. The earlier site design used a more traditional hierarchical structure, one we frequently see with technical documentation, arranged in seemingly never-ending tree structures. Users were quickly lost in this model and found they had to shift to different hierarchies to find unrelated information.
At the heart of the site’s success is a relentless customer focus. That customer focus is what is missing from so many high-tech companies. Publications organizations often are barred from interacting with customers. Just as often, technical communicators lack the desire to let customers lead the way. Following weather.com’s example, we need to develop user personas based on real in-depth information. We need to track, as weather.com does, exactly what pages are visited every day (and which pages are not visited). We need to hold focus groups, conduct site visits, and run surveys based on user visits to our Web sites. We need to include links on every page that invite user feedback.