When building a website, organizing your content can be a big challenge. The goal is to improve the user experience and attract more people to your business site. To do this, you need a logical organization of the information you present on the pages. In other words, you need good information architecture.
Many do not recognize the importance of tree testing and other strategies that improve the information architecture of a business website.
So what happens to their websites?
The result is sites that have overlapping categories, messed up content, and confusing labels. People who jump to these pages can’t find what they’re looking for or don’t like what they see. At this point, the quality of your services or products hardly matters because you don’t present them well.
To properly organize website content, you need to create quality labeling and structuring. There is a very effective technique for this. It is called tree test.
What is the tree test?
Tree testing is a proven and long-used method of assessing the findability of website content. Take any website – you get a hierarchy of categories and tags, subcategories below, all from one source – your homepage. This is why this technique is called tree tests – because it visually looks like a tree.
Tree tests can be performed remotely using tools such as Maze or in person. The former is faster, more affordable and allows the use of participants who can perform their tasks remotely. The latter is usually a moderate test, but it takes longer and can be more expensive. Melanie Buset, senior UX researcher at Shopify, cited in Maze’s guide to tree test, describes tree tests as:
“Tree testing helps you better understand people’s mental models of a product and how they would naturally think about exploring it. “
The concept was started by a design leader named Donna Spencer. It was first carried out using cards on traditional paper. Now that the technology is much more advanced, there are also many digital methods and tools for testing trees. These are more favored among companies because they are faster and require less effort and investment.
Also described as “reverse sorting of cards”, the tree test evaluates a tree, that is, a hierarchical structure of categories. To perform such a search, you need participants who will be prompted to click on a specific place in the tree to find what they are looking for. Their responses give web designers insight into how topics should be organized and in what order.
The following is a Shopify tree test made by UserZoom. Here’s what the results look like.
The benefits of tree testing for your business
Seemingly a simple and straightforward technique, tree testing is often underestimated. This method is easy to implement, and yet – its results are often very useful for companies. Here are some of the many things tree testing can do for your business:
Identify navigation problems
Tree test data helps businesses identify various navigation issues with a website – or even an app. With this method, you can collect data and analyze where your users are going to find the information they are looking for. Based on their behaviors, you can determine the key issues that keep people away from your designs.
Evaluate the effectiveness of your labeling
Tree testing is great if you want to test the terms you use on the website. If, for example, you use the term “contingency planning” or “business development”, will they know what you mean by that? Labeling is very important when you are building a website. If people don’t know what they’re looking at, it won’t be long before they find a cleaner website.
Through tree testing, you can figure out things like:
- If your target audience understands organizational jargon, i.e. terms used internally
- What are their favorite and frequently used terms or jargon
- What terms can be confusing for various audiences and what can be done to clarify them
- A list of synonyms that can boost SEO rankings, as well as page clarity
Baseline of an existing tree
When you are evaluating the information architecture of your current website or application, surely you want to find out which parts are not working – as well as which are working. The first you want to delete, the last you want to expand.
For a lot of problems, we already have an idea of how to solve them. There are many test methods used to improve the information architecture of a site, including user comments, web analytics, card sorting, etc. However, tree testing can give you a unique perspective on things you might not have noticed before. With the data collected using this method, you can know how much suspected problem areas are ruining your success and which unsuspected areas you need to work on.
Tree tests work best if performed continuously. Based on the initial data, you can determine what your next actions will be i.e. what you need to eliminate and work on in terms of your website content. However, there’s no reason to throw out this helpful technique once you’re done.
When you make your changes, you can run the tests again to see if they worked. Testing the revised trees will tell you how well the new parts or structure are performing and whether or not there are any structures that are still malfunctioning.
Compare different site structures
The idea behind tree testing is to show you which site structure works best for your business. Knowing this, why not use it to compare your options? Think of it as your brainstorming session, but one that includes insight from the people you want to please and attract to your business.
Preferably in the design phase, companies should have several different ideas in terms of website structuring. They’ll start with the favorite, of course, but what if that doesn’t work?
This is where testing using tree visualization comes in handy. You can compare different alternatives and find the best one – or combine the best features to come up with a user-friendly solution.
For example, you will find that your number 1 tree performs better overall, but there are parts of your number 3 tree that perform better. You can use this data to create a hybrid with the ideal structure.
How the tree test works
Since it is easy and takes very little time, tree testing is something you shouldn’t ignore when evaluating your business strategies. This is a task-based activity where participants need to find the location of a specific item in an existing tree structure. This tells you where they expect to find the information and what you can do to improve the business based on their behavior.
To perform tree tests, you need to follow these steps:
- Create a research plan where you align test goals
- Based on your plan, prepare questions for participants
- Define the tree structure with all categories, subcategories and other features such as pages of a website
- To create specific tasks for participants
- Decide on the number of participants and your target group – and find them
- Choose your tree test method (in-person or remote test)
- Pilot test with your team to see if it will work
- Run it and evaluate the results
Tree vs card sorting test
These two methods are very similar in purpose, but they can have different purposes and lead to totally different results that you might need for your business. Both are done to better categorize the content. But, they are used at different times in the strategic content creation process. They also require a different angle.
Sorting the cards is a great way to understand how the participant is thinking. But, if you want to follow a more precise categorization scheme, that won’t be very helpful. In card tests, participants create their group items and categories, so it can be difficult to design the pattern. In tree-structure tests, companies ask participants to work with a ready-made category structure. That’s why it’s called reverse card sorting – because it’s the same goal, but with a twisted approach.
Logically, the cards are sorted before the tree test. In a way, performing both tests is a great way to validate and confirm the results you get.
As you now know, tree testing is a useful technique that can provide businesses with an accurate overview of how their site is organized. Today, you can choose between traditional in-person testing or remote testing. The first is beneficial because it allows for more personal communication and mediation. The latter is appreciated for its speed and ease of use (you only need a browser and a tool to collect the data, and your participants can do it remotely).
Whichever you choose, this method is simple and inexpensive, and a great way to assess how well you’ve organized your content. It can go a long way in helping you understand what your users want from your business and your website or app.