Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Site Map: An Information Architecture Cop-Out

Avoiding the Site Map Cop-Out ...

"Why do you think your site map needs a redesign?" I asked the web manager of a mid-sized government agency.

"Our logs show that one out of six visitors is getting to the site map page. It's something we haven't paid any attention to and we think that it could be much better than it is."

One out of six users is a lot, especially for a site that garners more than a million visitors every month. It's natural the team felt concerned about the 166,000+ visitors the page is attracting and would want to make it the best they could. The only problem is that our research shows that effort could be wasted, since we've realized working on site map improvements is a design cop-out.

Design Cop-outs

A 'design cop-out' is when a designer works on treating a symptom instead of putting resources into solving the root problem. It's choosing a quick fix over solving what could be a wicked problem.

Don't get me wrong: I think it's a noble goal to make every aspect of the design as perfect as it could be. That's all this manager was asking to do. In addition, working on the symptoms often requires substantially less effort than the research, followed by trial-and-error process, that you'll need to fix the source problem. There are good reasons to fix symptoms.

Yet, a team has limited time and effort to put towards design changes. Spending those constrained resources on the symptoms only delays the inevitable. A design cop-out usually needs continual updating, whereas fixing the root problem can nip it in the bud and release long-term resources.
A Sensitive Site Map for Sensitive Skin

A couple of years ago, we had a participant come into our lab with a newly discovered medical issue: chemical sensitivity. They'd been suffering from increasingly uncomfortable skin rashes and a friend told them that Dove had a nice line of products that could help.

Therefore, we decided to visit Dove.com. At the time, the only substantial links on the home page were generic, awkward marketing contributions, such as Your Body, Your Hair, Your Skin, and Real Beauty. The participant needed all these things, so it was hard to know where to start. Because of her ambivalence, she ended up clicking on the link labeled Site Map.

The site map was quite different from the home page. There were close to 50 links, mostly names of products. These were categorized into groups, with an entire group labeled "Sensitive Skin." Our guest clicked into that group and found what she'd been seeking.

At first glance, it might seem this was a successful task. After all, the user found what they wanted. However, the home page practically failed them -- with the site map being the only hope. (It's interesting to note that Dove.com has since undergone a major redesign, rendering the site map similarly vague. All the specific product links are now gone, replaced by generic links like Hair and Face.)"    (Continued via uie, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

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