By separating concerns and focusing our research we can be more confident in our decisions. By tree testing before moving onto visual design and content writing we can be sure of our taxonomy and content hierarchy saving us from unnecessary meetings and expensive rework down the road.
Tree testing won't predict the impact of visual design; layout and colour will most likely have an affect on the choices people make. There are three broad visual cues for guiding users through a website: labels; icons; and character (colour, typography and form). It is vital that these three cues work together in harmony as people view and interpret the information you present to them.
While a particular label and icon might make perfect sense to you, if your website users are confused or misinterpret the visual cues then they are left wondering, “What do they mean and how do I get to where I want to go?”, or may simply ignore it. It is a rare and determined user who doggedly perseveres to find information on a website that irritates and confuses them.
The issue is that if you always test everything at once, like when you observe someone using your website, you are sometimes left wondering whether the solution for your issues is related to the labeling choices, the hierarchy, the layout, the colours or other aspects of the visual design.
Visual design and the impact on usability
As Joshua Porter wrote in his article, “Design is a means to communicate, not mere styling.”
The visual elements on a website create a personal and subjective reaction. The colour and font selections might read as regal to one user, whereas another might dislike them and consider them outdated.
The visual organisation of elements on a page also plays an important part in communication and if the visual contrast is too low everything will look the same to users and nothing will stand out, conversely if the visual contrast is too high then all visual elements will compete for attention and in the end nothing stands out.
Isolate the navigation and labeling
The beauty of tree testing is that the impact of visual design is eliminated entirely, allowing you to focus this part of your research on the information architecture testing and be confident of your outcomes and recommendations. By isolating the site structure you can see more clearly how the tree itself performs, and revise it until you have a high performing structure.
Once you have completed a series of tree tests, ideally including a benchmark test based on your existing tree, you will have strong quantitative evidence to show the most effective paths your website users take to complete common tasks and find important information on your site. Note I said “your website users”, not yourself, and not your web designer or your manager.
Labeling and structure are often influenced by the internal structure of an organisation, how the staff think about themselves, how things are categorized internally. For example: acronyms, departmental divisions, marketing terminology, made up words and brands. I'd bet that not even all your internal staff will have a consistent understanding of this terminology, let alone your website users. Tree testing will surface these issues and separate them from discussions regarding layout and visual priority.
If you'd like to find out more about tree testing take a look at Treejack.