Course: An Introduction to Designing for the Scent of Information
Presenter: Jared Spool
In this course, Jared described how to design Web sites that successfully guide visitors to the information they need, as shown in Figure 2. Site visitors sense “when they are on the right track to finding their content—they follow the scent of information.” Designing for the scent of information ensures that visitors will be successful in finding what they need. Visitors find information by following a well-laid scent trail—or are thwarted in their quest for information by unintended obstacles that make them lose a scent trail. Jared told us that “Designing for scent is more successful than designing for navigation.”
I just love Jared’s sense of humor, but this is serious stuff. If visitors can’t find the information they need, a Web site will be a failure. There are many kinds of obstacles that can keep visitors from finding what they need, as Figure 3 shows.
Visitors resort to search “when they don’t see a link that has good scent” and type the words they wanted to see in a link. Jared calls these “trigger words.” These words are often more specific than the labels for links on navigation bars.
UIE research showed that when a link and its associated text comprised seven to twelve words, people could successfully follow the links 50 to 60% of the time, with the optimal length being 9 to 10 words. Jared quipped, “One of the things you do in a usability test is you try to use your psychic powers to get people to do things.”
However, he said, “It’s not just the size of the link.” Links should include trigger words or “they’ll fail. … You have to be careful what words you choose. A one-word link is fine if you know it’s a trigger word.”
Since it usually takes from seven to twelve words to effectively communicate scent, but long strings of underlined text are hard to read, two of the most successful devices for creating scent are to
- associate descriptive text with links
- show other links that are subordinate to a link—“multi-level category links”
“Short pages reduce scent,” said Jared. “The most successful sites have really long pages. When you have short pages, you are limited in what you can do. Some designs prevent users from scrolling. They have visual scroll stoppers”—for example, horizontal lines that users might interpret as being the bottom of a page. He said, “We have yet to figure out the upper limit on the number of links on a home page. Users can deal with them. Users expect information to get more specific with every click.”
Jared made the very salient point that “you can’t separate IA, visual design, etcetera. You have to do all of those things together.” He also said, “Technology, feature check-list battles, experience designers, and non-designers all affect design.”
“It’s amazing how well site maps work—under a link with no scent that people click only when they can’t find any scent,” mused Jared. “Scent depends on context.”
Graphics are another kind of content that may or may not effectively communicate scent. There are three types of graphics:
- navigation graphics—which “communicate scent and help get people to information” and either “accompany or replace text links”
- content graphics—which “convey information that is of interest to people”
- decorative or ornamental graphics—which “communicate a mood or represent a brand,” but “don’t impact performance”
“Users aren’t happy if they’re not completing their goals. Whether something is navigation or content is not decided by designers or developers; it’s decided by users,” Jared declared.
According to Jared, “A traditional approach to design starts with the home page. You figure out what the major parts of the site are, then design a home page that gets people to each of those parts. To design for scent, start with a content page. Figure out from where users will likely want to get to that page, then put links in all those places where people would most likely want to find your content.” Designing for scent “pulls users to content. Scent starts with the content on a page.”
Jared made this important observation in conclusion: “Every design element that makes a site more usable contributes to the users’ confidence. Before they click, that includes link quality, navigation graphics, and the organization of information; after they click, seeing the desired information or more, stronger scent. There is a strong correlation between confidence and scent. Content must give off scent.” To design for scent, “you need to know:
- why users are coming to the site
- what their trigger words are
- where they are likely to look
“People don’t go to Web sites unless they have a mission. So you have to know what that mission is.”
Interactions Editorial Board Luncheon
During the lunch break, I attended the Interactions Editorial Board Luncheon, which took place in a private dining room at the Palais des Congrès and was well attended. Participants included many people who have been involved with Interactions since its inception. Jonathan Arnowitz and Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson, Co-Editors in Chief, shown in Figure 4, gave a report on the progress of Interactions over the past year, then presented the ideas we’d discussed at the dinner for Interactions editors and contributors, which had occurred the previous evening, and led a discussion on future directions for Interactions.
Course: Designing for the Scent of Information: Advanced Concepts
Presenter: Jared Spool
One of Jared’s associates, Christine Perfetti, was to have given this class, but Jared presented the class in her place. This course delved further into specific methods of getting users to the content they want by designing Web pages for the scent of information. It also explored UIE research findings on the five different types of navigation and the three key user behaviors that are predictors of navigation failure.
First, Jared showed an example that illustrated how difficult a poorly designed Web site can make it for users to find the information they need. Jared explained, “Users need strong scent to find content.” As users seek information, “they encounter different types of Web pages. Different types of pages need different designs. All help users in different ways. … The target content page is the most important page. All other pages deliver users to the target page.” While “navigation pushes users” to content, “scent pulls users” to the content they want. “Scent starts with the content.” Figure 5 provides an overview of why designing for the scent of information works.
Jared told us, “Key user behaviors predict navigation failure. Designers can use these behaviors to learn how to improve a site.” He described three user behaviors that predict the failure of scent:
- use of the browser’s Back button—When a site’s design forces users to use the Back button just once, 82% of users fail to find what they’re seeking. When users don’t have to resort to the Back button, 45% of them succeed in finding what they want. Jared calls the Back button “the Button of Doom,” because using it makes users lose scent.
- pogosticking—“The Goldilocks approach to design causes users to bounce between levels of the information hierarchy,” said Jared. Pogosticking occurs when pages don’t contain users’ trigger words. When users pogostick, only 11% succeed in finding the information or products they want. Without pogosticking, 55% succeed. The more users pogostick—which includes use of the Back button and breadcrumbs to jump up and down through a site or returning to the home page—the less successful they are in finding what they want.
- use of search—Using search to find content or products—rather than going to a content page directly from a list of featured content on the home page or getting from the home page to a content page via a category page—provides a success rate of only 30% versus 53% for users who do not use search. “Search prevents success unless a site contains uniquely identified data,” said Jared.
During the course, Jared described the following page types:
- content pages—These are the most important pages on a site, because they contain the content users want. Jared told us, “Content depends on scent to attract users.”
- gallery pages—“Galleries aggregate multiple content pages” as a list of links. “Scent is prevalent on gallery pages,” said Jared. Figure 6 describes the characteristics of successful gallery pages. Gallery pages include
- product galleries—The term gallery originated from product galleries on eCommerce sites that provide links to product pages. A product gallery should provide sufficient information about each product to allow customers to distinguish between them.
- content galleries—A content gallery comprises a list of links to specific content pages. A description of the content on a page accompanies each link.
- department pages—In large galleries, department pages divide the content or products into logical groups. Figure 7 describes the characteristics of successful department pages.
- store pages—If necessary, stores provide structure for departments. “Most sites don’t need them,” said Jared. “Their purpose is to eliminate the vast majority of a site’s content. Stores work only when users understand the distinctions among them. They must be familiar to users, so they are typically the same within a business genre. Using standard terms users know is most important.”
- home page—A site’s home page, or landing page, often “aggregates stores or departments.” According to Jared, “The home page is the least important page on a Web site.” Unless it contains the content a user wants, “its only purpose is to get users to other pages—usually category pages.” Therefore, its division of real estate is important.
On gallery pages, “link order is important. Alphabetical order is the worst way to organize things,” said Jared. “Longer pages work better. Fifty percent of people give up their search after viewing one page of search results. Put as many products as possible on one page. Long gallery pages work extremely well, but eventually there are too many items to let users choose among them. When a gallery page is too long depends on the content. Use department pages when galleries get too long.”
Jared pointed out that “links must be meaningful. Marketing terminology can block scent. You have to be very aware of what trigger words work for your users. … Lateral links are always important. Lateral links between gallery pages prevent pogosticking.”
On home pages, “paths are not equal,” said Jared. According to UIE data, users’ clicks on a home page typically break down like this:
- category links—86.8%
- featured content—1.3%
- other links—2.6%
“Watching users on your site will help you understand their missions and how to design for them,” Jared said in conclusion.