The Challenge

One of the most consistent challenges in creating positive online experiences is designing a product that aligns with users’ expectations while still achieving business objectives. It’s a constant balance. Users bring past experiences and current understanding of similar products to every site they use. The question becomes, “how do I align my understanding of the site I am designing (the conceptual model) with their expectations (mental model)?” This, of course, extends beyond design to site navigation: how can I organize navigation that feels intuitive to the audience? How can I translate business objectives into functional designs? There are no easy answers to these puzzles, but there are a lot of tools that help us investigate how to do this. 

Research to the Rescue

There are many user-centered design (UCD) approaches for discovering a user’s mental model. Contextual inquiry, card sorting, surveys, task analysis and user testing can be used, individually or in concert, to determine the audience’s expectations. From here, these outcomes can be integrated into navigation, design and architecture. When building a brand new site for a client with no prior analytics data, research methods like these-together with best practices in usability, user interface design, and content strategy-provide a solid foundation for creating a positive, holistic user experience.

The Road Less Traveled

However, a shiny new website is the beginning of the process, not the end. Building a great user experience is an iterative process. Even a site that gets off to a great start can use improvements down the line. It takes time to gather feedback, to see what is working, and realize what needs to be improved. Great UX requires a long-term commitment. The initial research only gives you an approximation as to how people will use the site.  As we all know, once it launches, there is no guarantee that everyone will use the site as you intended. Unexpected patterns can emerge. As the site collects data, and as analytics tools improve, there is a growing opportunity to improve the user experience over the long-term.

The Path of Least Resistance

In Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps, author Josh Clark mentions the anecdote commonly referred to as “paving the cowpaths.” He says, 

"[The story] describes a university campus that was built without footpaths. Instead, the founders just let the students walk where they might, wearing dirt paths across the lawn, and the university paved sidewalks only after these "cowpaths" emerged. The idea of paving cowpaths is appealingly simple: design according to the patterns people already follow."

Coincidentally, around the same time I was reading Tapworthy, Google released a new tool in Google Analytics called “Flow Visualization“. The tool shows the ways that people navigate through a site: where they enter, the paths they take around the site, and where they exit. In an excerpt from the Google blog, Phil Mui of the Google Analytics team explains:

"The Visitors Flow view provides a graphical representation of visitors’ flow through the site by traffic source (or any other dimensions) so you can see their journey, as well as where they dropped off. […] Goal Flow provides a graphical representation for how visitors flow through your goal steps and where they dropped off. Because the goal steps are defined by the site owner, they should reflect the important steps and page groups of interest to the site."

Image: Google

The Value of Visualization

What’s great is that these visualizations reveal paths that were not necessarily intended of users, or anticipated using other methods. This new tool allows us to view the paths people are actually taking through the site instead of the paths we expected them to take. We can then start to see new patterns based on live usage. This will have a huge effect on site redesigns. For example, maybe the “About Us” page isn’t getting the traffic we expected, so we realize it isn’t critical for our users. Or maybe users are having a difficult time finding the support form, therefore the “Contact Us” link in the footer needs to be a bit more prominent.

If these little things are ignored, they can stack up. Making a tweak here or there can go a long way to improve usability or increase goal conversion. While I could previously use Analytics to find much of this information via Traffic Sources or by setting up Goals, the Visitors Flow puts this information front and center, and will help me diagnose overall navigation problems much more quickly. Easier + better = happy IA.

Building the Best Toolset

As we design interactive experiences, we are tasked with matching conceptual models to mental models in order to create positive, intuitive user experiences. In an ideal world, every site would meet users’ and builders’ expectations. While we have a number of methods at our disposal to help us do this, high-quality visualization tools have been lacking. Google’s Flow Visualization tools are a big step in the right direction. Of course they aren’t a replacement for content inventories, user flows, or sitemaps, but visualizations are a welcome addition. When we use all these tools together, we have a more complete UX toolset.