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March 25, 2015

Four Ways to Polish a Multi-Site User Journey

Thought by Jim Doria, Information Architect

Although we still see companies who are looking to build a single website, now more than ever our clients are interested in building out platforms that host more than one site. This gives them greater flexibility and lower turnaround time when standing up new digital initiatives. Drupal is a perfect solution for multi-site installations, providing multiple technical options for setting up the platform. But equally important, and often less straightforward, are the user experience considerations of a multi-site installation.

Here are four things to keep in mind to ensure a multi-site platform that delivers maximum effectiveness for users.

Mall or Village?

To think about the different options for presenting a multi-site experience, consider the analogy of a modern shopping mall versus a small, old-fashioned shopping village. In the mall, the experience of different types of stores is unified. Entrances are similar or identical. Window space follows certain patterns, as does store layout. The uniqueness of the stores is downplayed so that nothing seems jarring or out of place compared to the surrounding aesthetic provided by the mall. In the village, the uniqueness of individual shops can be greater as they compete for attention. It may extend to their exterior architecture, types of signage, the space they occupy, even the number of floors in the building. A strong, individual identity for each store means a unified experience must take more of a back seat.

Neither approach is superior, they simply emphasize different things. Decide in advance which is more important for the platform being built. Is the commonality of the sites significant? Will the sites on the platform be entirely unrelated? Or, is something between these two poles needed? This decision will have far-reaching effects, contributing to decisions about menu structure, information architecture, content strategy, and visual design language.

Transitions Between Sites

While each site will have its own information architecture determined by the needs and mental models of the site’s user personas, sites that are thematically or functionally related must also provide the visitor with ways to understand and navigate between the sites that make up the platform. This may take the form of a persistent menu item, a tab-like structure, or some in-page element such as a consistently-placed sidebar. It’s also important to make intra-platform pathways obvious and familiar through the use of consistent color cues or iconography. This is especially critical when deep-linking from within one site to another. Visitors should know which site they will end up on before they click.

Write Once Read Anywhere

One of the benefits of an integrated platform is the ability to share content among different sites and get more mileage out of your content authoring efforts. But this appealing option also raises a number of questions that must be answered. Will shared content direct the visitor back to its place of origin for consumption? Or, will the content be duplicated for consumption wherever it appears? If not done properly, duplicating identical content across multiple sites may hurt your Google ranking (although some people say it won’t) so if you are SEO sensitive, you’ll want to make sure you have a strategy in place to handle multiple versions of the same content.

Who Am I This Time?

You’ll also want to put some thought into how you identify the user and how they identify themselves as they move among sites on the platform. If there is a sign-on component, a single sign-on strategy probably makes sense, but consider how user roles may be applied across sites. For example, is a login needed for every site? And if not, how does a user who has logged in on one site experience another site that doesn’t have its own login? Will they be confused if their “logout” link disappears? Will they see content differently from the anonymous user? Be sure to test all possible use cases to make sure user roles don’t spring any surprises on you.

The user administration piece will also require a solution. Typically users have a profile area where they can maintain their login information, e-mail address, and other details related to their account. How do these pages appear to the user: as if they belong to a single site on the platform, or using a more neutral styling that can’t be associated with any specific platform site? Creating styling for these pages and others like them which cross platform boundaries (such as contact forms) should occupy its own niche in your design process.

The technical benefits of a multi-site, platform approach are often obvious to site builders. The benefits - and pitfalls - of designing a platform-wide user experience are not as obvious. But, whether the platform ends up being a mall, a village, or something entirely different, devoting some time in your process to discovering and planning for these issues always pays dividends in the form of decreased development time and a more seamless and efficient journey for your visitors. If you’re starting your multi-site journey, contact us. We’d like to help you create a successful project.