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:

Grouping:
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:

Image

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:

Image

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!

Image

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:

Chunking:
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.

Image

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.

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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

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

Faceted Search Design – Ordering Facets

I’ve been lurking on the IAI’s mailing list for some time now, but recently someone posted a question that I just couldn’t resist answering:

We are getting ready to roll out a new faceted search option and I’ve been asked to make recommendations regarding the order of the facets and their characteristics.  I am having a hard time finding specific information about standards or best practices.  I repeatedly come across Stephanie Lemieux’s recent article, Designing for Faceted Search, stating that both facets and values should be based on importance.  While this is great, can anyone point me toward supporting information or is this something that is just understood?  Are there general guidelines for when to list characteristics alphabetically versus when to list them in descending order?

Ok, good call on the poster’s part – I had been vague in my article (Designing for Faceted Search, originally published in KM World), mainly because I had a broad audience and a word count limit. But I supposed that I should clarify a bit…  Here’s my response: 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.

Personas
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

Taxonomies and Mental Models

One of the biggest challenges to maintaining quality and value in a taxonomy lies in keeping interests aligned and resolving conflicting perspectives. By its nature, a taxonomy attempts to reconcile diverse perspectives – those of various types of users, engaging in diverse tasks. It also needs to support the needs of merchandisers who are vying for valuable site real estate. But what is the true purpose of the taxonomy from a strategic perspective? Is it to market the company’s offerings? Educate customers? Sell merchandise? Help the customer find answers?

The answer is yes, to all of these of course. But these objectives need to be balanced and there are always tradeoffs to focusing on one versus another. Lets say that the company wants to promote a certain item. It can raise that item higher in the hierarchy for greater visibility. But this may make the item seem out of place and perhaps affect how easy it is to find other items. Similarly, if we are trying to use the taxonomy to educate the consumer on a new type of product, that will have an effect on the ability to find product if not done correctly. The customer has a “mental model” of the world. If something does not fit in to that model, they typically discount, ignore or throw out that information.

For example, if a middle aged person not familiar with gaming consoles is asked to find a console of a specific trade or brand name, they will not know where to begin because it does not fit in with their mental model. This was strongly demonstrated in usability data in a recent project. Using a term that people are not familiar with may cause them to click on that term out of curiosity, but chances are they will ignore it because it does not fit in with their understanding of the world and what they are trying to accomplish. The bottom line is that using non standard or newer terms that are not widely understood violates a core principle of taxonomy best practices – the taxonomy should represent the users mental model – not try to teach them a new mental model.

If this principle is violated, the taxonomy will “editorially drift” over time and become less useful as a way finding device –that is, a mechanism that allows users to come to the site and quickly get to the merchandise they are interested in. This will cause them to become frustrated, abandon the site and shop with a competitor.

Taxonomies and change: the nature of the beast

An interesting problem was posed to a mailing list I am a part of…

Imagine that you have been using a single hierarchy to structure and organize your information for years, and it has been very successful up until now…

But now it is time to move to a different content management system, and not only that – business has changed (of course), and not every way of organizing and understanding the information could possibly have been anticipated. (Or perhaps you did anticipate some, but for practical matters limited the amount of metadata you might apply to content.) So you have new ways that users want to search and navigate, but never considered these at the start. What do you do?

Continue reading