Avoid Category Names That Suck

by Hoa Loranger on December 15, 2013

Summary: Categories and hypertext act as signs and should give people a strong indication of what will happen even before they click on the link. People avoid clicking on unknown items or, even worse, ignore them all together.

Web users are task oriented and want to satisfy their needs quickly. Deciding on which category or link to click on requires cognitive effort. For every page, people must review and compare the choices and decide which one will most likely produce the desired effect. This process can be exhausting, especially if each decision causes doubt. The anguish of being wrong often leads to fatigue and frustration, which in turn causes people to abandon websites. Clever category names cause doubt and hinder site exploration. The more confident people feel about their decisions, the more likely they are to engage with your website.

Good link names help people quickly and accurately predict what they’ll get before they click on a link. Descriptive category names have a higher chance of being discovered and clicked on than clever made-up words or internal jargon because people understand them. Because website designers are usually domain experts, they’re familiar with internal jargon and sometimes forget that their audiences are not. It’s easy to accidentally assume that internal vernacular is known to everyone in the outside world. Cleaning up unhelpful labels helps creates a better user experience and can positively impact people’s perception of your organization.

Five tips for making category names discoverable

1. Choose descriptive words and phrases that your users relate to, even if they sound boring. It’s essential for people to easily understand your navigational labels. Choose function over form. When labels are nondescript, people are more likely to click the wrong link and miss the information they need. In usability studies, we often witness people gloss over category names that have weak information scent, even if the link is the item they seek.

Category names such as Support and Solutions often trip up customers because people can’t accurately predict what information lies within them. Both options can be interpreted to have similar meaning.

Jennair.com does many things right. However, Inspired Living is a terrible category name because it doesn’t help people predict what they would get if they clicked it. Better to say what the inspiration is rather than tease users with a clever label.

The categories Discover, Learn, and Live are mysteries and do not help users decide where to click to get the information they seek.

These categories are better because they tell users what information lies underneath.

2. Avoid made-up words or terms. Don’t be tempted by the allure of clever names. Stick to commonly used terms. For example, About Us is better than Company Experience because it is a more common phrase. Featuring user-centric language improves reaction time, which is important to web users who tend to navigate quickly. If you must have fancy names, always explain their meaning. Remember, people tend to skip over meaningless words.

(Our course on Writing for the Web goes into more detail on how to convert feature-driven language to user-driven language so people relate to your message.)

Be wary of internal jargon. The Sanctuary might be meaningful for someone who works at the organization and meaningless to someone who does not.

This organization also has a sanctuary, but does a better job of explaining it by providing a context.

3. Check for overlapping categories. Categories names must be just right to attract the proper attention. They can’t be to too broad, too narrow, vague, or share meaning. Getting them right requires careful attention and lots of testing. The most useful categorization schemes feature distinct and descriptive categories.

The main navigation for Proficient.com misses opportunities to connect with users and get them in the door. Solutions & Services is vague, especially when coupled with Products. The distinction between these two categories is unclear. Such ambiguity causes hesitation, which can cost you clicks

4. Use classification schemes that communicate attributes your users can decipher. One of the biggest mistakes that organizations make when categorizing components is to use schemes that are familiar to them, such as arranging products by model number, or mirroring their organizational charts. As a result, it’s common for sites to make perfect sense to the creators, but not to their end users.

In usability studies, people usually look for products and services that satisfied conditions such as output levels and footprint dimensions. Most users don’t click on model names or numbers to determine their parameters, especially when the category names lacked sufficient meaning.

Internal schemes are often counterintuitive to users’ way of thinking. In a study with students researching university websites, we discovered that 48% of prospective students did not realize the university offered their major or program of choice. The main reason for failures is that many of the websites organized programs by department names that were unfamiliar to new students.

Our recent study showed that many students failed to find majors on university websites because they were commonly organized by department names or schools. Such classification schemes unrealistically assume that students know which degrees are offered within each program.

5. Don’t rely on your instincts when deciding label names. That can get you in trouble. Test names with your users to make sure they can accurately predict what information lies within each category. Techniques such as card sorting can help you get feedback on your labels and can show you how to structure your website so that people can navigate it effectively.


Obscure category names often increase the interaction cost because (1) they force users to guess (often wrongly) what the labels refer to; and (2) they make users choose alternatives that don’t match their goal, often leading to errors. However tempting cool names may be, stay away from them: they suck.

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