Usability Testing of USA.gov Mega-Menus

by Jakob Nielsen on November 16, 2010

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen's column " Mega-Menus Gone Wrong."

Joanne McGovern, Web Content Manager for USA.gov, sent me this note to follow up on my recent article about usability problems in mega-dropdown menus:

USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov recently conducted usability studies on our websites. The studies identified some very specific problems with our mega drop down menus, and we would like to share our findings to supplement the Alertbox article, "Mega-Menus Gone Wrong."

Overall, our study participants easily and quickly navigated the site with the mega drop down menus, and we had a good rate of task success.

As the article predicts, our study identified issues with our "Explore Topics" menu. Study participants clearly felt that our topic links need more detail, and our participants had a very low success rate when the task required them to click on the "Audiences" image. Even before the article, we began exploring ideas to better structure this menu.

Generally, our participants struggled with the images in the mega drop downs. Many simply ignored the images in the mega drop downs, and others didn’t realize the images were clickable. When a participant had to click an image to successfully complete a task, we found a considerable drop in our task success rate.

USA.gov mega drop down menus have a 3-column layout. When a drop down included a combination of link lists and images, like the "Explore Topics" menu, our participants focused primarily on the list of links.

Interestingly, when there were three images in a drop down, users seemed to be able to successfully use the images:

Mega menu on Spanish version of USA.gov

We’ll use our study findings to make improvements to the mega drop down menus and continue to test. I hope our findings will help you improve your mega menus.

Jakob's comments:
Thank you for sharing your study findings, and providing more details about pitfalls in mega-menu design.

I am not surprised that the USA.gov team's test results echo our usability findings. I always say that there are no secrets in usability. Anybody who bothers to look will see the same things as we do. (At least as long as they use valid research methodology.)

The main problem we face in the usability field is that so few people bother looking. This is particularly odd, considering how cheap it is to do simple user testing, which is enough for most of the findings you need to double the effectiveness of a website.

So kudos to the USA.gov web team for doing its own usability studies with real users. I am sure the site is getting better by the month as a result of knowing what works, as opposed to speculating on what might work.


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