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How Tree Testing Dramatically Improves User Experience

Frustrated users who cannot easily find what they want on your website usually have one simple recourse – leaving your site for a competitor. Without a strong information architecture (IA) and intuitive navigation, you are sabotaging the user experience and destroying your conversions.

Thankfully, there is an easy and affordable way to identify and resolve these issues before launch. Enter tree testing.

Tree testing evaluates the structure and labeling of your site‘s navigation and content categories. Rather than aesthetics, it focuses on the underlying IA skeleton that makes up your site‘s branches and flows.

The key is that tree testing can be done very early, before substantive design and development has begun. This allows you to optimize the user journey by making IA revisions early when they are quick and cheap.

According to noted UX expert Jakob Nielsen, tree testing provides "the biggest bang for the buck for improving site usability." Tree testing has become a standard UX practice for a good reason – it works.

In this guide, we will explore how tree testing dramatically improves user experience, how to conduct effective tree tests, and key tips for fixing issues uncovered in testing. Let‘s get started!

Key Benefits of Tree Testing

Before we dive into implementation specifics, it‘s important to understand why tree testing should be a mandatory part of your design process:

Finds IA issues before launch – Tree testing provides hard data on exactly where your site‘s navigation and IA are failing users. You can address these flaws before subjecting customers to a frustrating experience.

Tests navigation and labels – By evaluating the structure separate from visuals, you isolate the specific IA issues impacting findability and access.

Improves conversions – Companies who tree test and refine their IA prior to launch see conversion gains of 22% on average according to Hubspot.

Saves enormous rework – Changing navigation and IA late in the game requires rebuilding much of the site. Tree testing prevents this scramble and wasted effort.

Lowers costs – Running tree tests is relatively quick and cheap, especially compared to rebuilding a launched site. Fixing IA early keeps budgets in check.

Complements other UX methods – While tree testing focuses on IA, you still need workflow tests, prototyping, user surveys etc. to optimize the full experience.

Provides quantitative data – Unlike qualitative feedback, tree testing produces hard numbers like task success rates. This ensures issues are identified objectively.

Finds pain points – By tracking struggles and fail points, tree testing uncovers specific issues to address rather than general perceptions.

The end result is a smooth, frustration-free user journey and improved customer satisfaction across the board. Let‘s look at how tree testing accomplishes this.

1. Identify Navigation Pain Points

The core value of tree testing is it shines a spotlight on navigation and IA flaws before you launch. Rather than guessing what will frustrate users, you have empirical data.

These key metrics pinpoint problem areas:

  • Success rate – Percentage of testers who completed the task successfully
  • Number of clicks – How many clicks to reach the destination
  • Time on task – Total time spent completing the task
  • First click – Initial menu choice of users

Low success rates, high click counts, and long task times all indicate navigation issues and IA areas needing improvement. First click analysis reveals labeling problems if users consistently choose the wrong initial path.

For example, during testing you may find:

  • Success rate of 35% for a key task
  • Average of 6 clicks to reach the Support page
  • 23% wrong first clicks for Contact link

These concrete data points provide the impetus and focus for your IA enhancements. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, tree testing identifies 50% more usability issues than simple task-based testing.

Tree testing provides the tangible evidence you need to justify IA changes and gives you the specifics of what to fix.

2. Improve Your Information Architecture

With navigation trouble spots flagged, tree testing provides the insights needed to directly enhance your IA. Test results point the way to revisions that will streamline site flows.

Some ways to improve your IA based on tree test findings:

  • Rename ambiguous categories – If success rates are low, category labels likely need work. Rename them based on user language.
  • Consolidate categories – If testers are clicking down through multiple levels, simplify your IA and use broader buckets.
  • Break apart categories – Conversely, split mega-categories that have unrelated items together into more precise groups.
  • Flatten hierarchies – Minimize excessive hierarchical levels which force users to dig for content. Strive for breadth over depth.
  • Reprioritize content order – Ensure most important content and common tasks are available in fewer clicks.
  • Simplify flows – Remove unnecessary steps and redundancies identified by testers. Streamline paths.
  • Highlight common entry points – Beef up sections of the site where testers initiated key tasks to improve findability.
  • Realign based on tasks – Structure IA around major user goals rather than internal org structures.

You can iterate through testing different IA approaches until you see the navigation metrics clearly improve. Tree testing gives you the missing user validation piece.

3. Avoid Needless Rework

Failing to test IA early leads to excessive rework late in the process as you scramble to fix a broken user experience. This restructuring requires rebuilding much of the site at great effort and expense.

With tree testing, you dodge this inefficient process by verifying your IA upfront before any real design and development work has happened.

You also reduce ambiguities for your builders. Rather than guess how to construct flows, they work from a clear map validated by users.

The result is heavily reduced churn on builds and greater efficiency focusing on visual design and interactivity vs perpetual IA refinements.

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, fixing navigation post-launch takes 7x more effort than making IA changes during the design phase. Tree testing gives you the gift of rework prevention.

Types of Trees to Test

While we have focused on website navigation testing, tree testing applies to any structure with nested or branching options. Common applications include:

  • App workflows and menus
  • Software decision trees
  • Website mega-menus
  • Ecommerce category structures
  • Website footer navigation
  • Directory structures
  • Automated phone trees

Really anything involving information architecture and nested choices is fare game for tree testing. Even apps have tabs and flows that need validation.

On mobile, focus testing on more condensed structures vs complex mega-menus. Test priority areas and happy paths when real estate is limited.

How To Conduct an Effective Tree Test

To leverage tree testing for your project, incorporate these best practices:

  • Recruit 5+ representative users – Get a diverse sample aligned to your audience.
  • Test 3-4 high priority tasks – Focus tree tests around key goals not everything.
  • Use a clean schematic – Remove visual distractions to isolate IA.
  • Simplify flows initially – Start with obvious paths and build complexity.
  • Analyze click patterns – First clicks, backtracks and alt paths reveal issues.
  • Define testable metrics – Focus on actionable data like task times rather than general feedback.
  • Iterate your IA – Refine tree structure until you see clear improvements in data.
  • Supplement with surveys – Follow up for additional subjective user feedback.
  • Leverage tools – Services like Treejack optimize setup, testing and analysis.
  • Fix bigger issues first – Tackle high impact areas like critical tasks with low success rates initially.

By incorporating tree testing into your design and development cycles, you can eliminate painful IA issues before they see the light of day.

Navigational obstacles diminish findability, increase exit rates, and obstruct conversions. But you can avoid these UX pitfalls by tree testing your site‘s structure early in the design process.

Tree testing provides hard data to shape your information architecture for smooth user flows. This prevents wasted rework late in the game that can make or break your site‘s success.

So empower yourself to deliver the experience your customers deserve by making tree testing a regular part of your process. The benefits speak for themselves.

Now that you are armed with a complete guide to trouble-free tree testing, it‘s time to put these tips into action! Test and refine the navigation for your next project early to keep users – and management – happy.



Michael Reddy is a tech enthusiast, entertainment buff, and avid traveler who loves exploring Linux and sharing unique insights with readers.