Tag Archives: information architecture

Top Task Optimization – Example: The shop.nordstrom.com Header

Over twenty years have passed since the web was created, we’re still mostly creating the first web page and site. This irritates me.

Back in the days of web yore when websites started to gain serious traction and Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle came online, the websites I encountered mirrored the Internet applications of the time. Applications like GopherPinevi, and ftp.

Endless hierarchical navigational menus with content neatly and zealously segregated into the buckets behind them, deep-tree page patterns that look like man pages, a dizzying array of click targets, sitemaps for computers instead of humans, and crappy default font choices in sizes and styles that make click targets miniscule.

Even people who should know better often stumble (myself included!)

Two decades of usability and customer feedback, and many websites still do this stupid shit. The mobile web revolution is starting to change things a bit given the screen size constraints, but many mobile sites have a UI not far removed from a DOS prompt.

Why has it been so hard to move on? It’s not like people haven’t tried. Shockwave  Flash, as much as it has its other issues, does at least provide the possibility of more information-dense experiences outside of the HTML box when designed correctly. HTML5 is showing some promise but it’s still to early to say how it will turn out.

I think the problem begins at home. The home page, to be specific.

The reason this is the case is because most websites still get designed starting from the home page and view the home page as the “root” of the site. For small sites this still makes some sense, but for sites containing more than a handful of pages, it’s just plain dumb. The home page and headers and footers are now overloaded, bloated things, crying out for streamlining and optimization.

Search has pretty much erased site hierarchies, and if you don’t have your top site tasks linked or actionable on each and every page, you are doing your visitors a huge disservice.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll analyze some sites to show how I think they could be made a bit better in this area.

Let’s start with a department store, Nordstrom. They have locations across the country and they have a very good online shopping experience that also offers in-store pickup. If I buy something and want to pick it up[1], what two pieces of information do I need? Where the store is and what time it is open.

This site has two entry points to find this information: one in the header labeled “Our Stores & Events” and one in the footer labeled “Store Locations & Events“. I’d argue that the second link title is a bit better than the first, but they may be doing some A/B testing here to find the better phrase for their customers. Note that they also have the link instrumented to track which one gets clicked.

On the destination page behind the link, I see this:

A key task hidden in the middle of a complex graphic.

It’s nice that the text entry focus is set and highlighted in the field, but wow, with that big header text on a busy background, I actually clicked on the header thinking I needed to go to another page before I spotted the text entry.

After entering in my zip code, the first listing on the results page is the furthest from my location. So I have to scroll down to find the closest one. This is a solved problem, so it’s surprising to run into it here. The good news is that they do clearly provide shopping hours and a link to a map, but the map is three clicks in from the home page. This is a significant hurdle for people on mobile devices.

In this example, I’m going to tackle the multiple click problem via the header and solve for a few other usability issues that crop up there along the way.

Current header.

The current header has a lot going on. Nine links plus a search box. There are four links that point to two destinations and there’s a mix of underlined and non-underlined links.

The first thing that jumps out for me is that the prime real estate, the top left corner, is underutilized from a top task perspective. Multiple eye tracking studies  have shown that most people start in the top left corner, move right, then down and to the right a shorter distance, making an “F” shape.

In this Step 1 revision, I’ve moved the Nordstrom logo up and placed the search box right below it. I’d A/B test this location against the current location to check performance, but with a more visible location I’d expect on-site search to increase.

Step 1 header revision.

On the right side, I’ve de-duplicated the “sign in” and “Your Account” links. In this signed out state, they both lead to the same sign in experience. In a personalized signed in state, clicking on your name would take you to your account information. Removing that link has the added benefit of tightening up the top line and it no longer competes for attention in the logo area.[2]

The biggest change here is the addition of base store hours for most of the week[3], and a store locator by zip code search box that uses some ghost text as a guide. The user interaction here would be to type in a zip code, hit enter/return, and have a results page that displays all regional stores plotted on a map along with a list sorted by proximity to the center of the zip code. Each store listed would also display hours and upcoming events.

In this new interaction model, every page on the site now provides critical top task  information, a rough guide to when stores are open, and locations are now only one click away from being displayed on a map. In the current model that Nordstrom is using, you are three clicks away from a map, two from store hours.

We’ve now (hopefully) optimized two top customer tasks, so now it’s time to take the second step and optimize for the top business tasks of promotions in the header. Nordstrom is using three areas here: 1) top left, under the logo, 2) top right, in the black header bar, and 3) lower right with icon.

In this second step, the most noticeable change is moving the shipping information and icon up into the top black bar. This removes the circular black icon, which was a visual attractor and previously drew you to the search box. With the search box moved, there is no need to draw the eye to that target. The net effect is that we have uncluttered the right-hand side of the header and in the process, made the store locator more visible. I’d also lean towards an evergreen placement of the shipping information, given its high value proposition to entice customers to try things out for no cost, and only swap it out for promotions during major seasonal sales.

I’ve also taken the liberty here to change the font to more closely match the rest of the fonts in the header and normalize around sans-serif, but I’d leave it to a fontographer/designer to make the final call on font faces and sizes here.

Step 2 header revision.

By moving the shipping promo into the header bar, we also de-duplicated the points promotion that appeared in two places and removed two questions for customers, “Which link should I click?” and, “Are the links different?”

Another change is replacing the “See details” link in the triple points promotion with, “Only four days left!” Where there used to be three underlined links in the header with the same text that took you to two different destinations, now we have two clickable regions with clear destinations. My rationale for removing the third promotion spot is that with the shift of the search box, more people will see the promotion overall, so the need for two areas to promote it are minimized.

The net result? We’ve pared down to six links with an equal amount of destinations and unweighted the header from a visual standpoint so it competes less with the sales content below.

The existing and proposed headers together for comparison.

The final step would be to A/B test everything to discover if the changes we made drove better click-through or changed customer feedback around finding stores and store hours.

[1] This particular scenario may be an edge case for Nordstrom, but I constantly hear people complain about discovering store hours and locations for various merchants.

[2] I was also leaning towards removing the “Get E-mail Updates” and “Wish List” links, but without knowing the data behind how much this drives their overall digital engagement strategy, I left them alone. “Wish List” also takes you to a sign in page, so that would be a low-hanging fruit link to remove in the anonymous state to free up more space and reduce links.

[3] Nordstrom’s core days are Mon-Sat and in the United States, where most people generally expect reduced Sunday hours, so only displaying Mon-Sat core hours is a relatively safe move.

Information Architecture Planning

I’m just starting a new website project at work, and one of the first things I’m attacking is the information architecture. I’ve learned the hard way that having a solid site architecture can save boatloads of redesign pain later on.

My method is to plan it out and it goes roughly like this:

  • Learn everything I can about the topic(s) to be presented – past history, present situation, and future plans
  • Discover who all the stakeholders are
  • Perform an existing site content type and page audit
  • Build a site map of the current site
  • Wallow deeply in site metrics for top pages, visitor trends, referrers, search terms, and page flows
  • Wallow deeply in customer data around segmentation, intent drivers, and key tasks
  • Look for stuff that can be dumped overboard
  • Figure out what will need to be added in the future
  • Whiteboard out all the elements (content, information flows, external process connections, customer segments, etc.)
  • Stare at whiteboard for hours, then erase and draw, erase and draw until a model and page pattern(s) appear
  • Wireframe a few pages with the designers to get a feel if the model works across architectural segments
  • Go back to whiteboard and fix the broken stuff
  • Wireframe again
  • Look for more stuff that can be dumped overboard
  • Build high-fidelity comps, preferably on the deployment platform
  • Lock it for usability/review
  • Tweak after usability/review (if needed)
  • Hand off to production when it’s complete

Easy, eh? 😉


New Year, New Job and Shingling

After two and a half years of a fascinating, challenging, and wild ride in the Windows Phone division, I am moving this coming week to the Developer Division where I will be Senior Program Manager in Visual Studio overseeing a project that spans the Visual Studio marketing and developer websites.

This will be the fourth large website project I’ve done for Microsoft, the first three were combining the Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 TechCenters, launching Microsoft Answers, their first forum-based consumer customer support site, and launching App Hub, the Windows Phone developer website, which combined the XNA Creator’s Club and the previous Windows Phone developer site.

The common threads across all of these sites that I drove was re-factored information architectures, large-volume content presentation, and leading cross-divisional working teams. I’ve learned quite a bit over the past six years at Microsoft about these areas that I’ll certainly bring to bear in my new role.

On a different note, most recently, I’ve spent the past few months analyzing quite a bit of data around the API Reference portions of the MSDN Library and have been evangelizing my results to documentation teams across Microsoft. I’m cautiously optimistic that a couple of teams have taken the data to heart, as I know that some work has begun to address some of the larger pain points. When this work by many, many people eventually comes to fruition, it should dramatically increase MSDN Library search engine relevance, hopefully making problems like this and this much less severe, and make the treasure hunt for API information less frustrating.

In a nutshell, structural artifacts of the documentation process creates web pages that are similar in content. Search engines use a process called shingling to de-duplicate and willow results. In cases where they look across large, structured documentation sets, you may not ever get search results for specific pages because they look too similar to other pages. (Examples A, B, and C.) Mark Manasse of Microsoft Research was kind enough to give me some of his time in December to explain this in more detail and give me some great ideas to pursue to understand the scope of the problem and ways to solve it.

I wish I could say more now, but changing page patterns for millions of web pages takes time. I’ll keep you posted. 🙂