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What finding kimchi has to do with information architecture.

There are many secrets lurking in the supermarket that give us clues about how to tap into the psychology of website visitors. Here we look at how the aisles of a supermarket might relate to a website and its information architecture.

A new greengrocer recently opened in my neighbourhood. Right next to the supermarket where I do my grocery shopping. Their prices are lower and their fresh produce is definitely better. Yet, six weeks later, I still haven’t spent a single dollar there. In fact, I’ve been actively avoiding the store.

Why? Because it’s just so damn difficult to find what I need.

I tried. I stepped through the door, list in hand, ready to shop. But after spending five minutes searching for brown rice, then doubling back on myself for tinned tomatoes I gave up, dumped my basket, and headed next door, where I found everything I needed in minutes.

You may think I was a little impatient. Too willing to give up. But the truth is, this is the reality of today’s consumer society. Whether in the greengrocers or on a website, we expect to be led to what we want. Anything else is frustrating and confusing.

There is perhaps no other sector that understands consumer behaviour—and optimises the experience—better than grocery stores. From circular to layout, from shelf-space to checkout, supermarket marketers are masters of merchandising.

Digital experiences, just like physical ones, need to give time and consideration to the customer experience.

Just as in a grocery store, customer experience design defines how you structure, label, design, and organise the information on your site. The more you focus on enhancing this, the better the customer experience; and the more likely they are to return.

Why a UX-design-led-IA is fundamental to a project.

The purpose of a well-designed information architecture (IA) is findability. To help people find what they are looking for.

Findability needs to be considered before usability. After all, something cannot be used if it cannot be found. It sounds simple, but, as my local grocery store is discovering, this is a little more complex than you first think.

Imagine a product on a site: just like kimchi in a store. If this is the only thing on the site, or in the store, finding it is simple. However, it may be one of many millions of products, so we need to establish where your customer will intuitively look for it.

Good IA is a foundational component of an efficient user experience (UX) and is especially critical when designing websites with a large volume of content.

To help your customer find what they’re looking for, you need to understand the following four IA systems:

  1. organisation
  2. labelling
  3. navigation, and
  4. search.

Through a considered approach to all of these systems—which we’ll look at in detail shortly—a person intuitively knows where they are on a site. And they will know where they need to go. But there is more.

Just as in a grocery store, not every interaction is the same. Sometimes a visitor will have time on their hands; they want to browse, consider and weigh up the options.

Other times they just want to pop in and out. They just need eggs (or wine!), and only have two minutes to get them.

In each situation, there is nothing more frustrating than not being able to choose your own way around. A highly functional and easily navigable website is often more desirable than a website with a stunning visual design that is difficult to interact with.

So let’s take a look at the four cornerstones of IA: organisation, labelling, navigation, and search.

With each of these considerations, tiny mistakes can result in serious shortcomings. But by giving time and attention to all of these key areas, people efficiently find and interact with the things they need.

1. Organisation – or, where to find the nuts.

My local supermarket seems to think that people might go looking for nuts in the organic products aisle, the fresh fruits section, and with baking products, cereal, and candy. Pretty much everywhere. This is not wrong.

Basically, the nuts need to be where shoppers are most likely to look for them. Why? Because convention often trumps correctness. Therefore, the nuts need to be in multiple locations because they’ve been found in those locations previously, and that is what we have come to expect.

In information architecture, this is known as an ambiguous organisation scheme, where contents are arranged by topic, task, or audience; not alphabetically, chronologically, or by geography.

Ambiguous organisation divides information into categories that defy an exact definition. On a site, this means effectively understanding shared characteristics and the logical grouping of items. It helps us determine how to categorise, structure, group, and classify information.

Imagine how hard it would be to find anything in a supermarket if all of the products were alphabetically arranged by brand. If Nobby’s were next to Nespresso. How would you compare products from different brands? How would you find products if you don’t know the available brands?

This is why ambiguous organisation works in both aisles and sites.

2. Labelling – and how to avoid confusion.

When I first visited my local supermarket after moving to Australia, I had a hard time finding “bell peppers” and didn’t know that I should have been looking for “capsicum” instead.

Minor labelling mistakes in your site can throw people completely off course, make them think the information or product they are after doesn’t exist, and cause them to abandon ship entirely.

This is why labelling needs time and thought. It’s important that you use the correct term. And by this, I mean the term your target market(s) will more likely use.

With the wrong labelling, they might think: ‘I cannot buy capsicum here, therefore I’ll take my business elsewhere and buy capsicums (and the rest of the ingredients) somewhere else’. In this case, capsicum was the correct term for the target market (since that is what they’re called in Australia), and ‘bell pepper’ likely would have confused more consumers.

It’s important when labelling that the headings and links are not only accurate, but also conventional. Just as the supermarket has information boards above the aisles, websites have labels that represent the site’s content, and larger chunks of information.

A simple example of this on a website is the ‘contact us’ page. This is a commonly used title where people using your site may expect to find a contact name, address, telephone, email information – and maybe a map. If you didn’t find these items when you got there you would, quite rightly, be confused.

Once again, this is also due to convention, and we have come to expect a link to the ‘contact us’ page on any website.

3. Navigation systems – to facilitate browsing.

When I go to a supermarket and I am looking for a specific product, I typically enter via the entrance (most likely on the right side of the store), walk to the section that likely contains the product I need, go to the checkout, and then exit. A similar journey happens when browsing a website.

When someone enters a website from the homepage, they might try to find an appropriate section to explore using the main navigation, and then they might progress to the deeper levels of the website using the sidebars in the individual sections.

The navigation system has to do with how we browse or move through information.

Just as with a supermarket, this order needs to make sense. Frozen products are most likely located in the last aisle of the supermarket because if you get them first they will probably defrost while you do the rest of your shopping.

Now consider an actual supermarket’s online store. There is a certain route you would follow in order to purchase some products and it’s not necessarily the same as in-store. It doesn’t really matter if you pick frozen items first, or fresh produce. However, sale items are probably of immediate interest.

Of course, it’s not always as simple to find your way around a supermarket. So, if all else fails, you would probably grab the nearest store assistant and ask them where to look. This brings me nicely to my final topic, search systems.

4. Search – or, if all else fails, just ask.

If browsing via the navigation system doesn’t help a person find what they are looking for then they should be able to make use of a search feature, especially on large websites.

The search box is effectively the digital version of the supermarket assistant. Search results give you a direct link to where you want to be as opposed to browsing and clicking multiple links.

Building your site to ensure that search returns the right results is important if you want to make sure visitors find what they are looking for (and therefore stay on your site).

Of course, there are instances where search doesn’t work. It’s not foolproof.

Just like when I recently asked a shop assistant where the kimchi was. His blank face revealed he had never heard of it, and didn’t have a clue what it was. Even if they stocked it, I didn’t manage to find some with his help because he just didn’t know what I was asking for. Eventually I had to show him what it is and where I found it.

Online, there are always going to be instances of search that return “No results found”. This could be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps there are alternative terms for the same product? The important thing is to revisit the site and refine it as you learn. Just like the now ‘kimchi wise’ shop assistant.

More recently, research has shown that people prefer to use a search feature, as opposed to browsing, and only start browsing when the search returns no results (in which case there might be a labelling issue or the search feature just doesn’t work well). That is, of course, if they haven’t given up hope that they might still find what they need via browsing.

Wrapping up.

The secret of a good digital experience is the same as a good supermarket experience. Think about the audience.

Tap into the psychology of visitors and give them what they want. Because with good information architecture, the right planning, and a focus on user experience, we can understand the psychological principles at play. We remove our assumptions and we create a site that is usable, practical and helps people find exactly what they want. And, hopefully, returning for more.