How to use Tree Testing to Test the Information Architecture of Your Website or App

Importance of testing IA

Back when I was a kid, I was taught that raw bits of unorganized facts that needed to be processed are called data, and when data is processed and organized into something sensible, or presented to us in a given context so as to make it useful, it is called information. What I wasn’t taught as a kid was that even information needed some sort of organization, so that we could achieve a consistency in task flow.

One of the biggest challenges faced while building a website or an app is organization of content. If your content is not findable or accessible, no matter how pretty or full of bells and whistles your website or app is, your users are going to run away, and conversion rates are going to come down. Testing the organization of content (or information architecture as we call it), thus, becomes very necessary at the early stages of product development lifecycle.

Hello Tree Testing

There are several different ways in which the information architecture (IA) of a particular website/app can be tested. What if I told you there is a simple yet bulletproof technique to carry out such a test? Yes, we are talking about Tree Testing – one of the simplest ways to test the IA of an application.

So what is a ‘tree’? Typically, every website that has more than a few pages translates into a structure that categorizes pages into groups and sub-groups forming some sort of hierarchy of content. This hierarchy of content or ‘tree’ can be formed by the usual IA/User Research techniques (Read: Card Sorting). Once this tree has been formed, it needs to be cross-checked to make sure that everything is perfect. This is where Tree Testing comes into play.

Tree testing is an effective way to assess the findability, labeling & organization of your website’s/app’s structure. Unlike traditional usability testing, tree testing is not done on the website itself; instead, a simplified text version of the site’s structure is used. The prime focus is to test the navigation system of the website.

The questions to be answered are – “Can users find what they are looking for?”, “Does the navigation system make sense to users?”, “Can they choose between menu items, without having to think too much?”, etc. Factors like visual design, motion design, etc. are taken out of the picture.

Typically, a tree test is conducted prior to building a prototype to make sure that users are able to navigate easily through the ‘tree’ (hierarchy of content).

 

Why you should do it

There are various advantages of adopting this process. Few of them are clubbed together below:

  • It allows you to visually test the navigation and findability of your website/app.
  • It allows you to identify navigational issues prior to building a prototype or a dynamic website.
  • It allows you to analyze all attempts where users had trouble navigating before you go live.
  • It allows you to gauge how well users can find items in the ‘tree’.
  • It allows you to determine the ease with which users/participants complete the given tasks successfully.
  • How to go about performing a Tree Test

Here’s a short guide on how to go about performing a Tree Test: Let’s consider a hypothetical situation where you want to test the information architecture of an e-commerce website that sells hair and skin care products. Let’s assume that you’ve already performed a card sort and have come up with a navigation system that seems to be appropriate. The next step is to cross check and make sure everything is perfect. Here’s what you do.

  • Give your users/participants a “find it” task (Example: “Look for American Crew Daily Shampoo”).
  • Show them a text version of the top tier of the menu items of your website.
  • Once they choose a menu item, show them the list of items under that particular category (This is the next tier in your tree).
  • Let them continue to move down through the tree, backtracking if necessary – until they successfully complete the given task or until they give up.
  • Give them several tasks in this manner, every time starting back at the top of the tree.

 

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Analyze and implement the findings/results.

  • Conclusion Proper analysis of the findings will answer the following questions:
  • Did the users/participants succeed in completing the given task(s)?
  • Did they backtrack? If yes, then where and the number of times they needed to do so?
  • How fast did they click?
  • Which sections need a rework?

The most important task at hand next is to implement these findings/results. Redesign the structure of content using these findings and perform the test once again. If the user interaction is found to be smooth and error free, you are good to go.

Although Tree Testing might seem like overkill to some of us, but it does reveal major flaws in your website’s/app’s structure, and lets you define a more reliable site structure and navigation by validating the results derived from IA techniques like Card Sorting, etc..

 

Interested in learning more?  Get a 50% discount on this 5-star course on Developing an Information Architecture with Card Sorting.  Join a community of 100+ students & receive lifetime access to 14 easy-to-follow lectures from the user experience experts U1 Group (a UX consultancy firm).

World Usability Day: attend and win the $10,000 Prize Package

We’re excited to be sponsoring another exciting usability event called World Usability Day (WUD), taking place on November 13, 2014.

WUD is a single day of events occurring in over 25 countries that brings together communities of professional, industrial, educational, citizen, and government groups for our common objective: to ensure that the services and products important to life are easier to access and simpler to use.

The topic of this year’s event? Engagement.

We’ll be exploring critical questions like:

  • How can you engage people to use technology products and services?
  • What kind of design thinking needs to be incorporated to keep people engaged?
  • How can you engage those outside our field to understand the importance of a good user experience?

Find a World Usability Day event near you >>

Because we believe in this event and want to support the discussion around increasing engagement, Loop11 is sponsoring WUD by contributing 1 free user test, a $350 value.

The World Usability Package will include leading tools for Usability, Marketing & Project Management professionals, with a total value of more than $10,000 in prizes.

To enter the contest for a chance to win, you simply have to upload a photo of the most engaging thing you’ve seen today (online or offline) and then write a short explanation of why the subject is engaging.

Make sure to check out this post for more details on when to enter the contest and follow @optimalworkshop so you can catch the competition start date.

Why Marketing and UX Should Test Together

For many organizations, the sales and marketing team operate within a completely separate circle to the product development teams, but they are closely linked by the financial/budget calendars as well as the product release cycles. In the majority of cases the sales and marketing activities tend to dictate the initial business requirements and product specifications, if not the product sprint and release cycles.

Rather than proposing some radical concept or changing existing practices, here are some reasons why the UX practitioner should consider collaborating with the marketing department more closely so that the company gains the maximum benefit from its research activities and budget.

Completeness of research
Marketing research is aimed at understanding customer/user perceptions (i.e. their ‘wants’), which is an important component of the overall user experience. Complementing this is the user study and research on the customer experience of the products and services (i.e. their ‘needs’). When you can align the customer perceptions with their experiences then you will have a much better chance of meeting their expectations, or go one step further by exceeding them. Unfortunately, we often see business requirements created from market research and products designed based on user research as a result of the marketing department and the UX team failing to align their goals and objectives.

Efficient use of time and resources
In the current age of shrinking budgets and limited resources, it makes sense to streamline and maximize the resources available on hand. Creating two separate processes (and potentially using completely different tools) for conducting research within the company means having to duplicate the efforts of recruiting users, running research studies, not to mention the time and effort spent analyzing the results, managing the information and having extra personnel/staff to do the work as well as co-ordinating and scheduling the activities involved. It also means having people from the UX area chasing up data from marketing and vice versa rather than sharing and integrating the customer information knowledgebase.

Sharing/transfer of knowledge
A large number of UX researchers and designers are primarily focused on the observed or recorded behaviour and responses of users in the context of the product or service that they are trying to deliver. However, having access to information about user perceptions on a wider range of subject matter can reveal valuable insights about how to create better product or service for the user. Traditional marketing research techniques and consumer database contain a wealth of knowledge that UX researchers can tap into for creating better personas and user profiles. Conversely, a better grasp of user behaviour studies can also help the marketing team create surveys and studies that tailor to their target audience more than generic or standardized survey questions.

Last, but not least, in this day and age when many of the key business decisions are being driven by companies competing on the basis of understanding and delivering on customer expectations, isn’t it time for companies to start sharing a vision for what they want to achieve for their customers, rather than how to achieve KPIs that may or may not reflect if their customers are truly happy and satisfied? This means that marketing teams should not being seeing UX as a blackbox, and the UX teams should stop thinking about marketing research as secondary to the product design and development process.

Only by understanding the benefits and values of customer research and testing across the organization can research and testing activities create the maximum value. And that is the best reason for marketing and UX teams to start testing together.

 

Michael Lai is a freelancing and consulting UX architect specializing in infographic and data visualization design. He has worked and consulted in various industries (hospitality, retail, IT, science, and engineering just to name a few) and covered many UX related roles (including user research, copywriting, training, graphic design, business analysis, and information architecture) to make sure he understands the important UX issues first-hand.

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