Front End Alignment

    August 13, 2004

In large organizations, where departments and divisions develop and manage Web content on their own subsites, some of the greatest challenges are:

– How to maintain compliance with a consistent look-and-feel across the entire corporate Internet presence

– How to ensure that users coming into the front end of the site (the homepage or topsite) can find a consistent navigation model, even though each subsite may have very different content and navigation models, and

– How to periodically undertake design and navigational changes/improvements without having to force the entire organization into a costly and resource-intensive redesign cycle.

As a corporate Web presence grows, all the content management technology in the world isn’t going to save you from content growth issues (“content cramming”) if you don’t have a sound content strategy to govern standards and development of the site.

What do users care that you have new bells and whistles to streamlined content management and document management? Without a content strategy developed by a team consisting of business leaders, communications managers, Web managers and IT managers, your Internet presence can sometimes become a large, confusing cluster of content.

It happens innocently enough. Each subsite continues to develop new content and publish it to their own homepage with little or no governance from a content strategy to tell them how to align with the front end of their site.

Pretty soon the entire corporate site starts to look like a home renovation disaster — the kind where someone keeps adding new rooms and wings and features to their home haphazardly until it becomes a monstrosity. You can improve the whole by looking only at one part of the whole.

On the other hand, each subsite within an organization’s Internet presence has to have autonomy to develop and publish content based on its own business drivers and its own content objects. Your shipping division might not be able to use the same kind of navigational cues for its subsite that, say, the accounting department would want to use.

Even some aspects of the look and feel need to be different for each to reflect their different functions and makeup within the organization. If you try to universalize everything within the corporate Web site, you’ll have to bring everything donw to the lowest, blandest common denominator, and that won’t help your end users. At all.

As many organizations and usability experts are learning, the key is a corporate content strategy with strong executive support, “front end alignment” to make your homepage and other topsite pages consistent for the end user, and a centralized/decentralized content management model that allows content control and scalability, both corporately and departmentally.

If the homepage and other topsite pages are managed centrally by a corporate Web team, these pages can provide a kind of sitemap or guide or index of content to the end users (who usually start with the homepage anyway), while allowing the departmental and divisional subsites to manage their own content in their own way based on their own business drivers.

That way, if users can do their wayfinding at the front end or topsite level, they don’t have to worry about knowing how to navigate the many different subsites to find what they want. This also allows you to create a user navigation model that takes a more “outside-in” rather than “inside-out” view.

As well, maintaining key global navigational panels that are applied globally through server-side includes, for example, can help ensure that all pages throughout the site show consistent navigational labelling. This also helps with partial redesigns or refreshes to the site — you can change these panels (such as a header row) centrally and apply them globally without having to require any effort from the departmental subsites.

The front end or homepage is the most important page in terms of its function as a gateway and a guide to all content within the site. It also serves as our visual paradigm for everything else we expect to see beyond that point.

While periodic redesigns and revised content strategies are essential as our business evolves, our technology changes and our content expands, sometimes all you need to do is re-align the front end to make sure your Internet semi is cruising down the highway and not jacknifing into a muddy ditch.

Garth A. Buchholz is the Corporate Web Manager for the City of Winnipeg ( and publisher of Contentology (, a global information site for content developers. Garth has also been the Web manager and information designer for Investors Group ( As an early “dot-com” entrepreneur and one of the first Internet journalists in Canada, Garth wrote a weekly newspaper column called Internet Today from 1997-2000.