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e-commerce project: the browse structure

This article is part of a series about our e-commerce redesign.

The browse structure of any website is always controversial within the organisation. I’m always struck by the discrepancy between how interested the organisation is in browse (as opposed to search) and how interested the users are. I’m not saying users don’t want a sensible, intuitive navigation scheme but they also want a really effective search engine. Most web design project involve huge amounts of effort invested in agreeing the navigation and very few discussions of how search will work.

Partly this is because navigation is easy for stakeholders to visualise. We can show them a sitemap and they can instantly see where their content is going to sit. And they know the project team is perfectly capable of changing it if they can twist their arm. With search on the other hand, stakeholders often aren’t sure how they want it to work (until they use it) and they’re not sure if it is possible to change anyway (search being a mysterious technical thing).

Even forgetting search, the focus on navigation is almost always about primary navigation with most stakeholders have very little interest in the cross-links or related journeys. The unspoken assumption is still that the important journey is arriving at the homepage and drilling down the hierarchy.

So I went into the e-commerce project assuming we’d need to spend alot of time consulting around the navigation structure (but knowing that I’d need to make sure I put equal energy into site search, seo and cross-linking, regardless of whether I was getting nagged about it).

A quick glance also showed that the navigation wasn’t going to be simple to put together. Some of my colleagues thought I wasn’t sufficiently worried but I’m used to the pain of categorising big diverse websites or herding cats as Martin puts it. I participated in at least three redesigns of the BBC’s category structure, which endeavours to provide a top-down view of the BBC’s several million pages on topics as diverse as Clifford the Big Red Dog, the War on Terror and Egg Fried Rice.

My new challenge was a simple, user friendly browse structure that would cover a huge book catalogue,  RNIB publications, subscriptions to various services, magazines, and a very diverse product catalogue of mobility aids, cookware, electronics and stationery. And those bumpons, of course.

Card-sorting is usually the IA’s weapon of choice in these circumstances. Now I’ve got my doubts about card-sorting anyway, particularly where you are asking users to sort a large, diverse set of content of which they are only interested in a little bit of it. Card-sorting for bbc.co.uk always came up with a very fair, balanced set of categories but one that didn’t really seem to match what the site was all about. It was too generous to the obscurer and less trafficked bits of the site and didn’t show due respect to the big guns. Users didn’t really use it, probably even the users who’d sorted it that way in the testing. My favourite card-sorting anecdote was the  guy who sorted into two piles “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like”. Which I think also alludes to why card-sorting isn’t always successful.

In any case, card-sorting isn’t going to half as simple and cheap when your users can’t see.

We decided to put together our best stab at a structure and create a way for users to browse on screen. Again not just any old prototyping methods is going to work here – however the browse structure was created would need to be readable with a screenreader.  So coded properly.

I wrote some principles for categories and circulated them to the stakeholders. Nothing controversial but it is helpful to agree the ground rules so you can refer back to them when disagreements occur later.

I reviewed the existing structure, which has been shaped over the years by technical constraints and the usual org structure influence.  I also looked at lots of proposed re-categorisations that various teams had worked on. I looked at which items and categories currently performed well. I reviewed the categorisation structures as part of the competitive review.

I basically gathered lots of information. And then stopped. And looked at it for a bit. And wondered what to do next.  Which is also pretty normal for this sort of problem.

(actually one of the things I did at this point was write up the bulk of this blog post – I find it really, really helpful to reset my thinking by writing up what I’m doing)

Somewhat inevitably I got the post-it notes out. I wrote out a post-it for each type of product and laid them out in groups based on similarity (close together for very similiar products and further away as the relationship gets weaker). This is inevitably my sense of similarity but remember this is a first stab to test with users.

Where obvious groups developed I labelled them with a simple word, some like books or toys. If a group needed a more complex label then I broke it up or combined it until I felt I had very simple, easily understood labels (essentially a stab at “basic categories”).

There were too many groupings and there were also a scattering of items that didn’t fit any group (the inevitable miscellaneous group). I dug out the analytics for the shop to see how my grouping compared in terms of traffic. I made sure the busiest groups were kept and the less popular sections got grouped up or subsumed.

This gave me a first draft to share with the business units. Which we argued about. A lot.

I referred everyone back to the principles we’d agreed and the analytics used to make the decisions. Everyone smiled sweetly at me and carried on with the debate.

After some advice from my eminently sensible project manager, I conceded one of the major sticking points. As I reported on Twitter at the time:

“Have given in and allowed the addition of a 13th category. Will the gates of hell open?”

Luckily at this stage we were finally able to do some usability testing with some real users. Only four mind, but they all managed to navigate the site fine and actually said some nice stuff about the categories. One tester even thought there must be more products on the new site, in spite of us cutting the categories by two-thirds.

So if someone attempts to re-open the browse debate, hopefully we can let usability tester #2 have the last word as in her opinion the new shop is…

“very, very clearly divided up”

Enough navigation, time to concentrate on search….

Related posts:
Re-branding miscellaneous

Written by Karen

May 12th, 2010 at 6:50 am