This is the first in a series of posts about simple UX techniques you can use in your own site planning and preparation.
When creating site maps and crafting a site's navigation scheme, sometimes we run into questions about whether a certain page should fit under one category or another in the site's structure. It's easy to get into an internal debate on the merits of one choice over another, but what often works really well for us is to do some quick and dirty testing. It usually takes 5-10 minutes and requires nothing more than a pen, paper (we use index cards — they're portable and easy to adapt to different types of sorting) and the ability to walk up to someone (coworkers and strangers alike) and ask a question.
How it works
Get your pen, paper and the dilemma you're trying to solve. In our first example, we want to know where users would click to find more information about jobs. So I created a list of the top-level navigation:
Next, find some users to test. For this exercise, I polled five of my workmates who weren't familiar with the project (and therefore had no preconceived notions about the dilemma). Then, I separately presented each person the card with the list and gave them a scenario: "You want to know more information about getting a job with this company. This is their website navigation, where would you click to find out this information?"
My original guess was that the majority would go for About Us, but what I found during this quick and dirty sort was that a resounding majority chose Contact Us. So, that's where we started with our site map.
Notice I said that's where we started with the site map. This method is not meant to get us the end-all, be-all answer. Rather, it helps to answer questions we have during the planning process and make more educated choices (if even just slightly) rather than just purely guessing.
To take this exercise further, we can start to dive deeper into the navigation. In this next example, we wanted to know where users would most likely click to find a garbage can that also has a cigarette tray on top. So we start with the main navigation choices:
This one is a bit trickier, as both Ash Urns and Trash Receptacles could get you to the right place. In this test, we found that most users started their search under Trash Receptacles and expected to narrow their search from there. Choosing Trash Receptacles finds us at its second level navigation.
This example is meant to illustrate that you can take this exercise to as many navigation levels as you'd like. I could create a third card that breaks down the receptacles even further, if that was a structure we wanted to explore for this website. The key thing to remember is that this exercise is a helpful way to answer initial questions and provide a starting point for your site's structure. It's not a substitute for working and testing with actual users (unless those users happen to be your workmates or whomever you poll) or dealing with more intricate problems along the way. This process is iterative, so I highly recommend checking in at various points of the project to see how decisions affect users and their paths through your site.
Expanding on the sort
While the previous examples address specific questions for mostly-mapped out site navigation, the other side of this method helps to bring clarity and focus when you have a wide set of pages (or products or anything else that needs grouping) to sort out. Instead of listing an entire navigation level on one card, we give each page (or product/element) its own card, and start with a pile of cards like this:
This is a simple site for a company with products and services and a few supplementary information pages about the company. From the pile, we can start to rearrange the cards to create columns of pages that are related.
In shuffling these around, we moved the main ideas to the top (Home, Services, Products, About Us, Contact Us) and filed appropriate pages underneath each. To take this even further, we can take a closer look at the Products column. Is there a way to further break down Notepads, Paper, Pens, and Pencils if we wanted to?
Why yes, yes there is. To take this exercise to the next level, we can put the cards in front of users, ask them to arrange the cards in a way that makes sense to them and notice what differences arise in their arrangements and our arrangements.
While this is a very basic example of how card sorting works in terms of site structure, this method can also be used to help tackle other grouping issues, such as determining which products to add to a set of categories or deciding what those high-level categories should be called.
This quick and dirty UX technique can help you get started thinking about your site's structure (or even things like product categorization structure). It's a fairly easy tool to implement and as I mentioned, can help answer preliminary questions and identify trends and patterns in user paths.