Perhaps recently you’ve walked into a grocery store thinking you’ll quickly find that one obscure ingredient in your latest quarantine recipe, only to discover you’ve wasted ten minutes walking up and down the aisles (side-eyeing anyone that gets too close). You finally find it in an aisle that makes no sense to you but seems obvious to the store manager who led you there. You’ve just experienced the result of bad information architecture in the real world.
Information architecture (IA) is the organization of web content to better suit usability and findability without wasted effort on part of the user. We all rely on our internal cognitive compartmentalization to make sense of the world, and ecommerce stores are no exception. When the category structure of an ecommerce site doesn’t match your customers’ internal expectations, friction can occur. As a UX designer, friction is the last thing I want for your customers. You could have the coolest new site on the block, but if customers can’t findwhat they are looking for, then they can’t buy from your store. Your category taxonomy is at the core of your site, and it needs to be structured logically.
Now that you’re convinced IA matters, here are 5 tips when designing your IA for your online store.
1. Avoid Overcategorization – Especially in B2C, when customers are browsing your store, oftentimes they don’t know precisely what they want. They are there to compare your products, virtually “trying them on.” If you have very narrowing subcategories for attributes of products you sell, they may find themselves siloed onto one page drawing the incorrect conclusion that you don’t offer the product they desire.
For example, Best Buy narrows its ‘Appliances’ category down to slightly ambiguous subcategories of ‘Major’, ‘Small’, and ‘luxury’ kitchen appliances, not allowing customers to view all available kitchen appliances. Perhaps a customer wants to compare a luxury dishwasher to a more economic version. It’s important to allow customers to see the full category with narrowing filters rather than siloing them too soon.
This overcategorization also often occurs when sites that sell a variety of brands categorize by brand. Instead, allowing filtering by brand or providing a separate ‘Shop by Brand’ page will better guide customers.
Best Buy uses product attributes as defining categories. A better experience would be including ‘Luxury’ as a filter on a ‘Kitchen Appliances’ product listing page.
Chewy provides customers with a separate experience when shopping by brand rather than displaying brands within the main navigation.
2. Look at your current search data – If customers can’t find what they want, they often resort to search. Search data can give you valuable insight into what your customers expect your categories to be named, and what types of product categories they expect to see high-level within the main navigation.
SD conducted an IA audit for one of our clients, Robert Graham. We were surprised at how many customers were searching for ‘Men’s Shoes’ both on the site and through branded organic searches. At the time of the audit, ‘Shoes’ was hidden as a tertiary category under an ambiguous ‘Accessories’ subcategory. Surfacing that category higher within the navigation helps guide customers through the shopping funnel more efficiently.
For Robert Graham’s new site, ‘Accessories’ was renamed to ‘Shoes & Accessories’ and ‘Shoes’ was placed highest under that subcategory.
3. Keep common naming conventions – Innovation is fantastic, but when a customer wants to quickly find and purchase a product, naming a category something obscure can be confusing. Chances are, if they’re shopping on your store they’ve already price compared with some of your competitors. Competitor research can be telling as to what customers expect your category taxonomy to be.
SD worked with Industry West, a home furnishing brand, to redefine their IA. We were debating separating out the categories by area of the home (living room, kitchen, etc.) vs. product type. Thorough research of competitors suggested sticking with their breakdown by product type. More than half of the direct competitors of the brand were already breaking out their main navigation in this way. Changing the way your audience is used to shopping can cause delays, so always keep in mind current conventions that work. Using thematic categories can be confusing, especially to new customers who expect the navigation to be broken out by product type.
For Industry West, SD decided to mostly maintain a breakout of product types vs. thematic room types based on competitor analysis.
4. Avoid redundant subcategories EXCEPT when logical – Your product catalog may be large and complex with subcategories relevant to multiple parent categories. In general, it’s best to avoid duplicate categories. But if there is an instance where customers expect to see a category in multiple places, you don’t want to hinder their progression through the buy funnel. For instance, a customer might expect to find ‘socks’ under both ‘Footwear’ and ‘Accessories.’
The two ways to do this properly are:
1. Drive customers to the same category page regardless of where they are coming from. There can be some usability issues in relation to breadcrumbs with this approach
2. Duplicate the category. Canonical setup is required for this approach to avoid SEO issues. There also could be complexity within search category recommendations.
Because of technical complexity, the rule of thumb is to only implement redundant categories when it is completely necessary and logical. This will help guide customers through their browsing experience rather than forcing them through an unexpected avenue.
ASOS Features ‘Activewear’ both under ‘Clothing’ and under ‘Women’ to help customers easily find this category.
5. Make Parent Categories clickable – A recent study by Baymard Institute found that 14% of ecommerce sites today group subcategories under a text label rather than a clickable parent category. Most customers expect the ability to browse top-level categories before siloing themselves within a narrowed category. To support the exploratory nature of customer browsing, provide these pages for an easier experience.
Customers on West Elm are unable to tap the parent category ‘Ceiling Lighting’ etc.
Keeping in mind these 5 tips, the design of your navigation should take the IA and defined category taxonomy into account. Deciding whether your site will need a mega menu, for instance, or if search needs to take high priority, are all informed by IA. You want a menu that can grow with your business needs, which is why IA is a crucial initial step to a navigation redesign.
Within the past year SD redesigned the mega menu and mobile menu for SWIMS. This, along with some other UX improvements, increased their order volume YOY by 130% in 2020. If you’re inspired to redesign your Information Architecture, our award winning UX and Digital Strategy team is here to help! Get in touch to chat about your goals today.