Ensuring Your Site Makes Sense to Your Users

There’s a simple four step process you can follow to make sure that your users can find their way to what they want in your site. How simple is it? Just let your users tell you how to organize your site’s pages.


Ed Krol, author of ”The Hitchhikers Guide to the Internet,” described the Internet as ”a library where all the books were dumped on the floor and there was no card catalogue.”

You, of course, don’t want your site to look like that to your users — a real danger in a complex site. In earlier posts I’ve talked about some of the strategies you can use to ensure that users can find what they’re looking for in a complex site. Two aspects that I’ve stressed are ensuring that users recognize what they’re looking for in your site’s user interface and letting your users know when they’re on the right path — when they’re getting “closer” to what they want

The first step in achieving both of those goals is deciding how you’re going to organize your site’s content.

Multiple Organizations

Unfortunately, for any useful site, there are a number of ways that its content could be organized.  That makes it harder to decide which is the “right” organization.

Consider as an example, a library.  In a reference library (like one in a university), books are organized by academic disciplines and, normally, sorted by author. This supports the library’s main user community: academics searching out citations in a subject area.

In a public library, on the other hand, a different organization structure makes sense. As with the academic library, fiction may be organized by author (most readers seek out books written by someone they like) but there will often be a separate section in the library for the current best-sellers (which won’t, necessarily, all be works of fiction). In a public library, biographies are often sorted by the person the biography is about, not by the book’s author, because the library’s readers only care who the biography is about.

I have quite a large personal library which is, in part, sorted by height. Separating “shorter” books from “taller” books allows me to put more shelves in any vertical space and lets me cram more books into the room. I have a friend with yet another organization system: his books are kept in his living room and are sorted by color.

All of these various ways of organizing make sense to the community that uses them.  But other “communities” than your users may also influence your site’s organization. For example, the organization of a typical supermarket reflects the influence of the store’s owners. It’s the owners’ influence that puts many of the most common purchases (milk, meat, eggs) at the back of the store, requiring customers to walk past dozens of enticing options to buy before getting what they came for.

The “right” organization for your site has to reflect both the needs of your users and of your organization. How do you figure out what that organization is?

A Simple Process

You can start organizing your site after you’ve developed your conceptual design. At the conceptual design phase you have enough information to take a “good enough,” first cut at what pages you’ll need in your user interface.  A simple four-step process will let you generate a structure for your site that makes sense to your users (we discuss a more sophisticated version of this process in Learning Tree’s User Experience Design for Successful Software course).

You have to do the first step: Make up a 3” by 5” card for each page that you believe your site will require (I still haven’t found an electronic way of doing this that works as well as this card-based method). On each card, write the name you’ve made up for the page along with a description of what the user will use the page to accomplish. Make sure that you leave some blank space at the bottom of the card.

The second step belongs to your users. Call in some of your users and ask them to organize these cards into groups that reflect their view of the world. As your users organize these cards into groups, ask them to improve the name of the page by writing better names in the space at the bottom of the card. Also stress that it’s perfectly alright to have a group that consists of exactly one card and that groups can be of any size including groups of just one card: There’s no need to force any card into some group.

When the users are finished creating the groups, for the third step give your users additional cards and ask the users to assign names to the groups. When they’ve done that, have the users arrange each group as a stack with the name of the group on top.

In the fourth and final step, ask your users to define any relationships between their groups: Which groups “belong together” or which groups are subgroups of some other group. One way to have users express those relationships is to ask the users to arrange their stacks of cards on a large sheet of flipchart paper spread out on a desk. You can then have your users draw lines on the paper between the stacks to show the relationships between the groups (you can see why I haven’t found an electronic way of improving on this technique).

The Payoff

The whole process frequently takes less than an hour and everyone involved enjoys it. And, while you’ve gathered critical information about how your users see the site’s organization, you’ve also sent a message to your users that their input matters to the design of the site. You may need to modify the card’s organization to meet your organization’s goals (see my supermarket example, above) but the overall structure of your site will end up reflecting your users’ input. In addition, you’ve done an additional test on your site’s conceptual design and gathered some feedback on whether it makes sense to your users.

If you’re interested in more variation on this technique, you can check out some more card-sorting options on the US government’s excellent usability site.

Now, when you build your site, name your pages based on the ”better names” your users wrote on your cards. All by itself, this ensures that, when users come to your site, they’ll now see their terms reflected in the UI. Organize your navigation and menu structure around the relationships your users developed in organizing their stacks. Now, when users pick higher level group items in order to drill down to the lower level items they want, they’ll recognize that they’re getting “closer” to the item that they’re actually looking for.

To put it another way: Let your users design the site they want and it will make sense to them.

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