Summary: When your website's users consistently go to the wrong sections, you have many options for getting users back on track, from better labels to clearer structure.
We recently user tested a website devoted to one particular product. Single-product sites often have good usability because of their clear focus, but they can still have issues, as our study showed.
One of the bigger problems the test revealed was that users were quite confused about two sections of the site's information architecture (IA): Foo Basics and Using Foo . ("Foo" isn't the product's real name; because this was a client project, I have to keep details confidential.)
We tested 8 users on many tasks. In 7 of those tasks, users needed to go to either "Foo Basics" or "Using Foo."
The following table shows the sections users visited first . The cells representing a task's correct choice are color-coded according to the users' initial click:
- green indicates that at least two-thirds of participants immediately used the correct link;
- yellow indicates that between one-third and two-thirds of users immediately used the correct link; and
- red indicates that less than one-third of users clicked correctly the first time.
|Task||"Foo Basics"||"Using Foo"||Other Sections|
|B||6 (correct)||2||0||C||2 (correct)||6||0||D||3 (correct)||1||4||E||0||8 (correct)||0||F||0 (correct)||2||6||G||2||2 (correct)||4|
Out of 56 task attempts, users immediately went to the correct site section in only 25 cases — a mere 45% of the time. (The ultimate success rate was higher because users sometimes realized their mistakes and then found the correct area.)
In this case, we discovered the IA problem through user testing that revealed a high frequency of navigation errors. If you know in advance that you have an IA problem and want to focus on it exclusively in your testing, you can conduct a card sorting study. For most projects, however, I prefer to keep an open mind and do standard user testing, which addresses all design aspects. In this case, for example, we found problems beyond the IA, including those with the site's writing, visual design, forms, error messages, and a service that was difficult to understand.
Diagnosing the Problem
When users go to the wrong section most of the time, your site obviously has an IA problem. Although our example site had other IA issues as well, the big problem related to the two site sections shown in the table:
- "Foo Basics," which contained background information about Foo, as well as what was good about the product and how its features worked; and
- "Using Foo," which contained information to help people who already owned Foo better utilize it.
The distinction between these two categories makes sense, but only if you have a strong conceptual model — something customers rarely have. Most users simply start clicking rather than spend time building an understanding of how a site's designers view the world.
Our example site's designers have several options for correcting user misconceptions about the IA:
1. Merge the two sections into a single area so that users won't have two similar options and mistakenly select the wrong one. Users who previously went to "Foo Basics" or "Using Foo" won't necessarily go directly to a new, unified section to find information. However, we can assume that roughly the same number of people who visited the separate sections first would choose the unified section, giving us a 75% success rate. That percentage might even prove to be bigger, since the unified section might attract users who went to other sections in tasks D, F, and G. Of course, it might also be too attractive and get clicks from users who need to go elsewhere. Only additional testing will show.
As for the (distinct) downside, merging two sections would create a larger, more complex section. This new section would have twice the features of the old individual sections. As a result, users would be more likely to get lost within the new section and would have to spend more time scanning the section overview page to find the subsection they need.
2. Rename the two existing sections. Different labels could make the distinction between the two Foo areas more clear and thus users might be more likely to click the right one. In this case, the solution isn't likely to work because the two sections are inherently too similar for a single label to clearly denote the difference. For other sites, however, simply relabeling a site section using words with much stronger information scent can greatly increase users' success. This is particularly true if the original labels were made-up terms and they were replaced with familiar words that people understand.
3. Explain the two choices. Instead of (or in addition to) new labels, you can help users by providing additional information next to the navigation labels. Pictures can sometimes help, particularly when you have categories for two distinctly different products. Other times, a line or two of text for each option can explain what they mean. Although such text can be pure exposition, it's often better to list a few specific examples of the information contained in each category.
Of course, we know that users don't like to read a lot online , so brevity is essential. Also, the homepage is typically the only place with room for such explanations; navigation menus must stand on their own. For users who arrive through a deep link or who decide to keep using the site once they've completed their initial task, clear navigation labels are a must.
4. Restructure the site. In our example case, the designers might be able to split the two problem sections' information up in a way that better resonates with users. Alternatively, they could restructure the entire site, which might also address cases like task F, where most users went to the wrong site section. Site restructuring, of course, is a lot more work and thus it's rarely the option of choice.
5. Move information around. In a case like task C, where most users went straight to a wrong section, you could simply move the target information to the place where users looked for it. The potential downside here is that it undermines the integrity of the site's structuring principle, which might make the structure harder for users to master in the long run. But it's often equally appropriate to simply stick the information in the other spot. If that's the case, just do it.
6. Add cross-reference links. Finally, you can recognize that you'll never have a perfect IA where users always click into the right section every time. Even though it's a kludge, you can add interface elements to overcome common mistakes before they snowball into true usability catastrophes. The Web is built on hypertext, so there's no reason to restrain yourself to offering users a single way to find important information. If you know many users are going to the wrong site area, add a cross-reference link. Obviously, every extra link is an additional feature that will delay users who don't want to visit the other area, so use cross-references judiciously.
With 6 possible fixes, what should you do? Sadly, there's no single answer. The best solution is typically a combination of changes, such as renaming the labels, moving some features around, and adding a few cross-reference links to alleviate the remaining problems. Other times, you can come up with a brilliant master plan to restructure the entire site and help everybody in one swoop.
With these types of design dilemmas, usability comes to the rescue: instead of spending endless time in expensive team meetings arguing over what to do, simply mock up 2 or 3 paper prototypes of the most promising solutions and test them with a new set of users. That's a quick and easy way of finding out what solution works best for your specific circumstances.