Taxonomy & Mega Menus… Part 2: Grouping

Best Practice #2: Use chunking and grouping to increase scanability and learnability

So you’ve taken the mega-menu plunge and you now have more labels to fit into your drop-down. How do you make sure it doesn’t look like a mess of text?

There are a couple of options:

Create clear and logical groupings within the menu and give them prominent labels that can easily be scanned.

There are four elements to this approach

1. Logic: Groups have to be internally coherent and logical. Either they are all children of a common parent or somehow conceptually related in a way that is evident and quickly learnable.

2. Labeling: Use simple, unambiguous labels that convey the nature of each group. Decide if your labels will be “clickable” – is there a landing page behind them or is it just a visual way-finder? The mega-menus tend to discourage clicking on such intermediate levels, but marketing may want the space to provide category-level merchandising.

3. Volume: Follow general good practice on number of items in a category. We can thank cognitive science for an easy rule of thumb of 7 +/- 2, but I would say that in a mega-menu, space being limited, I would reduce that to 5 +/-2. This will reduce visual noise and fits well with best practice #1 (less is more).

4. Visual distinction: Use striking colors, increase white space between groups, use shading or dotted lines… anything that you can do to make a visual separation between the groups so that they eye can quickly skip from one group to the other without much thinking.

Let’s look at some examples.

Here’s a screenshot from an office supply site taken a while back:Image

Aside from the fact that it has far too many terms, it is suffering from not having good visual distinction. It’s hard to distinguish the group labels from the single items below, and some of the terms are a little confusing: “Basic Supplies”? What makes a message pad a basic supply vs. a paper supply? I’d have a hard time scanning that label and deciding to either skip over that category or make the effort to look at the children.

Compare this to the next version of the same site:


We still have the labeling issue, but notice how this is visually much easier to scan  – I can concentrate just on the bright blue headings to quickly decide where to focus my attention.

Here’s yet another office supply site:


Good: nice visual grouping – flashy orange & capital letters directs attention
Bad: ambiguous labels (organization? how is a post-it organization?), too many terms in one category

This is fun… One more!


Although they’ve tried to use capital letters and some dashed lines, the grey text just doesn’t attract the eye. There are also too many groups and the inconsistent use of multiple groups per column makes it look cluttered and confusing. Another interesting thing to note is that although visually subtle, the use of groupings likely still attracts attention more than the left hand column which has a collection of single choices. I would venture a guess to say that a majority of visitors to this site would ignore the left hand column altogether (except for the A-Z artist block).

Keep in mind that when available, groupings will visually and cognitively trump singles, so avoid mixing the two approaches.

There are some cases in which the mega-menu does not lend itself well to grouping, such as low term volume (in total or per group). If you have 6 categories with only 2 items in each, it can be more visually distracting to have group labels cluttering up the menu. In such cases, an alternative approach is:

Create “chunks” of related terms separated by white space (i.e. with no labels.)

This approach is definately less straightforward and doesn’t give the scanability that grouping with labels does, but it’s better than a big list of undifferentiated terms.


Again, not as effective as labels, but cleaner and more meaningful than a straight list. Underwear, loungewear and socks are clearly related, and so are all the accessory type categories. One might be able to skip over a chunk after scanning only the first few items once you got the gist of its grouping principle.

Here’s what it looks like when you don’t use chunking or even ordering based on grouping principles.


The price points aren’t grouped together… it’s hard to tell whether the items below mean that they are under 50$ (they aren’t)… the tea products are scattered in with other types… Generally messy.

So, to recap:

  • grouping is a good way to reduce the amount of work someone has to put in scanning a larger list of items
  • use visually distinctive grouping mechanisms
  • make sure labels are simple and intuitive
  • if you can’t group due to low volume, consider chunking (or at minimum using meaningful ordering)

Next in the series: Best Practice #3: Use simple & concise terminology

Taxonomy & Mega Menus… Part 1 of many

No matter where I run, I cannot seem to hide from them.

They fly out of website navigation menus with no warning. They assault my senses with link overload.

…they are…mega menus.

Are they a new navigation paradigm or just a bad fad – like acid washed jeans?

And whose idea were they anyways?
It’s difficult to trace the starting point of the mega menu (or mega fly-out, or maxi menu, or whatever you call them); they started popping up on e-commerce sites a couple of years ago. The first one I bumped into one, my brow got that wrinkle it gets when I am at once curious and horrified – horrious? curified? I remember thinking, really? This is what we are doing now instead of putting effort into making our drop-downs more usable? Let’s just add more drop-down…

Once the initial feeling of horriosity passed, I just forgot about it. None of our clients were using them, so I didn’t really have to pay attention. And THEN, this March Jakob Nielsen put out an Alertbox saying “Mega Menus Work Well.” That was really the clincher. If Jakob/NNG says it’s ok, well there goes the neighbourhood. Continue reading

Presentation Zen – Slideshare’s Nemesis?

I’ve been thinking a lot about powerpoint styles lately… Fall conference season is soon approaching and I have to build a bunch of presentations. However, I recently read Slide:ology and now I’m tormented:

Do I make it useful or pretty?
Do I go for presentation eye candy or pithy leave behinds?

If you’ve read any of the Powerpoint philosophical treatises (e.g. Presentation Zen or Slide:ology – both great books), you’ve learned that MUCH less is more when it comes to slides. Use lots of images. Use few words (there’s a range of opinion between 5 words and 3 bullet points). If you’ve perused presentations by some of the conference gurus out there, you’ll see that a lot of them are largely just an image with a handful of words at most. Picture of a tree, picture of some birds, picture of a frustrated office worker…

Continue reading

SEO vs. TNBP or “Where was I going again?”

Much has been written on this blog about the value of SEO when it comes to taxonomies.  As Stephanie mentions its’ a huge weapon in the battle against outdated legacy terminology and spur of the second marketing speak. Jeff’s posts on keyword research, taxonomy and SEO are indispensable primers on the topic. So what haven’t we talked about yet?

How about SEO as the enemy of navigation?

Is there such a problem as too much of a good thing? When it comes to taxonomy navigation best practices and SEO, you bet.  Think about it this way: imagine you are meeting a friend for drinks after work and she tells you a story about something that happened to her during the day.

“I was in my office, and I had just poured myself a fresh cup of coffee.  I was in my office and the phone rang but I was tempted to ignore it. I was in my office and picked up the phone and it was my husband calling, did I mention I was in my office? Anyways I was in my office and my husband told me to sit down because he had incredible news. I was in my office and I sat down. I was in my office and my husband told me that we had just won the lottery?

Right, so… where were you again?  In your office, ok we get it!

Now have a look at the following taxonomy navigation suggested to us on a project for SEO purposes: Continue reading

Collaboration, Groove and SharePoint – History Repeating Itself?

I just read that Groove is being renamed as SharePoint Workspace 2010.  For those of you who are not familiar with Groove or its history, I’ll take you back to the early 80’s. 

Ray Ozzie is the visionary behind Groove and currently the Chief Software Architect at Microsoft (a role he took over from Bill Gates).  At University of Illinois (as many know, home to the NCSA  which created Mozilla, the first web browser on which Internet Explorer is based) Ozzie worked early iterations of some of today’s knowledge management,  collaboration and social media applications (discussion forums, message boards, e – learning, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multi-player games.

He also worked with some of the pioneers in personal computing and products like Visicalc, one of the first spreadsheet programs that ushered in the age of personal productivity.

Ozzie worked for a time at Lotus Development and went out to form a new venture called Iris Associates which developed a collaboration tool called Notes.  Lotus acquired rights to Notes with Iris remaining a separate entity but doing all of the research and development behind the product.

Continue reading

MOSS 2007 Requirements Gathering: Fast and Focused

Since Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is a mature platform for collaboration, content management and portals, companies can implement the package without much planning or even requirements gathering. Too often, the IT department is assigned the task of technically implementing SharePoint, with little context for its use or its potential value to the organization. The individuals in Business Units or Departments, who will use the system, are kept in the dark about the plans and the functionality of SharePoint. Once IT is satisfied that MOSS is technically stable, it rolls the package out to users with little training or follow-up. This approach rarely succeeds.

In this post, I want to examine how to set the foundation for a successful SharePoint implementation by starting with a clear understanding of user requirements and the business results stakeholders want to achieve. Governance, Site construction, etc. can wait until there is a base level of understanding of the business objectives and user requirements. Continue reading

Audience Modeling

Ever since Polish biologist Jastrzębowski coined the term “ergonomics” in 1857, we have been trying to decipher the tricky relationship between machine and human. Regardless of whether you’re designing front-end interface functionality or crafting an information architecture that serves as the clothes hanger for your content, user-centered design is undeniably a major player in achieving results. It’s certainly a crucial consideration in every taxonomy project. Project stakeholders often envision the ideal taxonomy as being “all things to all people”. It’s a wonderful idea in theory, but the resulting structure would be a chaotic mishmash that in practice fails to meet most user needs. Part of the solution is in the art—and science—of understanding and categorizing your audience.

Creating usable systems requires user research in order to understand audience goals, needs, and capabilities. This process results in a host of raw data, but the data is only valuable in its effective application to system design. Quantitative data can be measured, charted, and graphed, but that only tells one part of your audience’s story. Popularized as an interaction design method by Alan Cooper, personas are a decision-making and communication tool that can organize the numbers in your data, but also describe patterns of why actual users behave in their particular ways. This qualitative information is the meat of reliable personas. Continue reading