Web Information Architecture and the Myth of the Few Clicks

I’m surprised when companies coming to me for improving their web site customer experience still today tell me that one of their requirements is to have everything accessible within one or two clicks from the homepage.

The "few clicks" principle is one of the most misunderstood and oversimplified concepts in Web usability today.

Good information design isn’t about how many clicks it takes to reach the information desired or to complete a specified task as much as how intuitive it is to do so. It is about providing a natural flow of information that supports decision-making along the way.

First, you can’t have everything accessible in a just few clicks from the homepage or from anywhere else. Too much information overwhelms the users. The more choice there is, the harder the decision, and the more visually dense a screen, the harder it makes it to pick anything out.

Some things are bound to be accessible in more clicks, especially in a large site with a deep hierarchical information tree. As long as the path is clear and intuitive, users will find what they want. The important is that users are able to find without hesitation or error the link that leads them a step closer to information desired.

For example, a link to the user manual for a printer might be over 4, 5 or more clicks from the homepage. A natural flow for someone might first start with finding "products" then "printers", then selecting the specific printer model before seeing a link to the user manual. Having a list of all documents and files for each product in all product categories would be unfathomably unwieldy.

Good Information Design

Good information design is the main requirement for making information easy to find. There are two different levels at which information must be organized: at the conceptual level (the information architecture; how information is grouped and named) and the visual level (how it is grouped visually on a page).

Conceptual Information Hierarchy: Information Architecture

In making an effective information architecture, it is important to understand how we humans create memories, store and retrieve information. The hippocampus, a small part of our brain, plays a pivotal role in memory and learning (which incidentally also plays a critical role in mapping and navigating physical space). In short, we try to make sense of what we learn by organizing our knowledge in a structured way. We create associations in our brain in order to make the retrieval of information more efficient.

It makes sense that if information on a Web site is organized in a way that reflects our own organization, navigating that information space will be much easier. Therefore, the information on your site should be grouped in logical sections and sub-sections and named according to the target users’ mental models (how they tend to group name information), which usually is a hierarchical tree-like information structure.

How the information on your site is organized can be represented by a sitemap, and usually ends up being reflected in the main navigation. An intuitive navigation allows people to quickly click through, in a natural flow, levels of information down to the right page without hesitation between options.

A frequent mistake companies make is to organize their site according to their internal structure, such as business units. While it may makes sense internally to the company, it is not how people tend to organize information and it negatively affects their capacity to find information. We’re proven this in numerous studies.

Making sure the information architecture is intuitive to target users requires (and I stress requires) conducting research into their mental models. Card-sorting, in which you get people to group cards that represent content in a way that makes sense to them, is one method of researching groupings but has limited use and is not practical for very large amounts of information. We also use different psychology exercises such as word and definition tests and associative techniques.

Visual Information Hierarchy: Gestalt Principles

Then there is the visual grouping of elements on a page. Here applies Gestalt principles of perceptual organization; the laws of proximity, pragnanz, similarity, closure and continuity. In its simplest form, that means elements (links, buttons, blocks of text, etc.) that are of the same conceptual family are grouped together, separated visually (for example, by whitespace) from those of others. These are simple, fundamental principles that are unfortunately often ignored by designers.

Prioritization

The homepage is the prime real estate. While it is true that because of search engines, people can enter a site on any page, many visits start from the homepage. So understandably, companies want to highlight as much as they can on the homepage. You don’t want only links to main sections of the site; that’s what navigation is for. There are new products, articles, news or important messages to promote and highlight. But since you can’t have everything at once, you have to choose judiciously what will be there. The principle is prioritization.

Here are some basic criteria by which to evaluate what should be given priority:

  • Importance to the user: what is important to most of your users, or to your most important users.
  • Frequency of use: most frequently accessed pages can be linked directly from the homepage, even if they belong to deep levels of the hierarchy.
  • Freshness: New highlighted content from deep within the site, like new articles, promotions, service messages, features, etc., regardless of their position in the hierarchy.
  • Importance to the business: The main money-generating content of the site should be given priority, as long as it has importance to the user as well. Each business unit believes what they do is important to the business, but what is prioritized should be so from an objective business-wide perspective.
  • Urgency: For example the emergency number for reporting lost credit cards, technical support, or important message such as maintenance, or product recalls, etc.

Some of these explain why in certain cases you’ll find in top navigation some sections that would normally reside in lower levels of the information hierarchy.

Buying, Registration and Application

Companies also often have the same "few clicks" misunderstanding when it comes to selling products or services, or registration and application forms. Some of these processes can benefit from actually having more clicks.

More clicks are better

The "one-click" purchase on Amazon is great, but that model doesn’t work for every type of product or service. You’re not going to buy a car or an investment plan without going through a process that supports information gathering and decision-making.

Multiple-step "wizards" that ask users a series of questions sequentially can be more effective than long product pages with "buy now" or "apply now" buttons.

When money is involved for unique or infrequent purchases, people need to go through a process that induces confidence. Here, clarity and control are more important than speed.

Various forms also sometimes benefit from being broken down in a few logical, seamless steps. There is nothing more off-putting than a long form. Since forms on computers can be dynamic, some steps in a registration process can be skipped entirely depending on the previous answers. A dynamic form that changes according to the user’s answers is better than a long one-size-fits all-one.

One of the only ways you can really have everything two clicks away without overloading the user is by having an excellent search engine on your site, provided your search engine is powerful enough and your content designed with search engine optimization in mind. But search engines are not a replacement to good information design, they are only an extra tool.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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