Pinpointing the findability of topics on your website with tree testing

5 min read Steven Carr

Think about the last time you were visiting a friend or family member’s house and needed to find something. Like a spoon, for example. You start in the kitchen because that’s where we’ve all been trained to find things like spoons. But where do you look next? Some may look in the drawer near the dishwasher, while others may look to the drawer that’s by the cabinet that holds dishes and bowls. Point is, people use context clues and other points of reference (like familiarity and habits) to find things that they’re looking for. 

The same goes for navigating a webpage.

However, unlike the spoon example, there’s much more variation in website structure than kitchen layout. Websites vary from industry to industry, ranging in purpose from ecommerce to digital portfolios and everything in between. So when someone lands on your website to find something or complete a task, is it obvious where they should go to get things done? 

Your gut might tell you that it is. The people on your design team might tell you that it is too. But what really matters is what happens with actual users. Whenever you’re building a new website or optimizing an existing one, it’s important that you build it with quality user insights. That starts with user experience (UX) research.

And before you ask if we mean qualitative or quantitative research – the answer is both. Let’s explore a particular user research method that’s essential for gathering the information needed to build intuitive site navigation. It’s called tree testing.

How tree testing evaluates findability of topics on a website

For anyone unfamiliar with tree testing (sometimes referred to as ‘reverse card sorting’ or ‘card-based classification’), it’s a series of tests that help you understand where and why people get lost in your content.

It works by taking text-based versions of websites and stripping the influence of navigation aids or design elements to build a study. Participants are shown the text-only version of your website or app and are asked to indicate where they would find specific items or topics.

By removing everything but the labels and how they’re organized, you can work out just how effective your website structure is at enabling people to find what they need. If test participants consistently struggle to locate specific items, you’ll know there are issues with your structure. It can also help you visualize what paths participants take to get to specific site information.

Another point worth mentioning is that tree testing not only uncovers site navigation flaws, but it reveals word choice and microcopy that may not be clear to users. To reference back to the initial analogy, one person might say “where would I find your spoons,” while another may ask, “where do you keep your utensils?” So, tree testing can also be helpful for understanding which words work best in your site structure.

When should I conduct a tree test?

While it’s best to conduct a tree test early in the research phase of a project, there’s never a wrong time. (Unless that time is not at all). And if you have an existing website, this is a good time to establish a base of your existing site structure. The results you gather here can help to highlight any issues with your site’s structure and provide the data needed to compare to any improvements.

If you’re starting from scratch with a new website, you can run tree tests on different versions of your proposed site structure and then compare the results to determine which makes the most sense to your users.

How do I conduct a tree test?

Running a tree test is simple. You can use an online tool (like TreeJack) to collect all of the necessary quantitative data you need to ensure successful site navigation.

A screenshot of the Treejack tool from Optimal Workshop, with the pietree shown.
A screenshot of the pietree in Treejack

But what about the qualitative side of it all? We’re so glad you asked.

How to add qualitative data to your tree test

Running tree tests is a great way to gather quantitative data about your site navigation and topic findability, but it’s not so good at providing you with qualitative insights, or why people are looking for information the way that they are.

Traditionally, you could get your gift cards ready and set up an in-person study where you watch people perform the tasks laid out in your tree test, and subsequently ask why they searched for things the way they did. But that takes a lot of time, coordination, and compensation. Alternatively, you could set up a remote usability test using a platform designed to record users as they complete your tree test.

This way, you’ll get the quantitative results you need to make decisions, backed by qualitative insights from real people. You’ll be able to set up your test to get answers to questions like: 

  • “Why did people go to X category to find information on X?”
  • “Why did it take so long to find X?”
  • “Why did people take that path to find X?”

Combine quantitative and qualitative research solutions to paint the whole picture

Teams that solely rely on quantitative data are only getting half the story. By pairing tree testing tools, like Optimal Workshop’s Treejack, with UserTesting’s Human Insight Platform, researchers are able to not only see how people search for information on a website but get to the bottom of why. When used together, quantitative and qualitative data reveal the most valuable insights for tree testing.