Recently I was evaluuating information architecture (“IA”) project for an enterprise client. One of the key points we’ve been emphasizing is the different usage styles across the user base. Users can be divided into at least four classes as they interact with any web site:
A fairly common technique in web site requirements and design has been dubbed “OTS” – over the shoulder. Basically, just by watching users interact with a web site you learn a lot about its organizational and navigation architecture. Some users jump right in and start clicking on things. Others use guidance from search or maps, or seek advice from other users. There’s no right or wrong way to use any site – but you need to be able to accommodate all of these usage patterns. (No “magic quadrant” here!)
I’ve grouped them along two axes:
Here are the four types:
Mailers – Historically, these users don’t actually use a web site, just its contents. Rather than browse or search they ask friends, colleagues or administrators to “just email” links to them. Although this seems like the least sophisticated way to use a site, modern web trends have greatly expanded this technique. Instead of solely relying on email, users increasingly look to crowd-sourced innovations, like microblog status updates, personal sites, or wallboard posts to get and use the links they need.
Mappers – My dad would always look at the table of contents in a reference book first. Some users are the same way – rather than search, they look to a static site map to find the section they need.
Searchers – Instead of flipping to the front of the book for the table of contents, other readers start at the back – for the index. (Or else they’re used to reading the Forward) Similarly, some users almost always use site search to find what they need. These users need to be accommodated by metadata crawling, faceted searches, refinements, and usage-oriented results ranking. Quality of search results, keyword management, and best bets are critical to serving these users. These users can teach you a lot about site IA – top search terms are usually good candidates for home page links. If the most frequently searched for term is “holidays”, you should probably have a holiday list link on the intranet home page.
Browsers – Browsers just use the navigation links on the site to get what they need. You might think of them as “traditional” users, but they require a lot of care and planning. If the user interface and navigational structure aren’t intuitive, they get frustrated and try another technique (search) or give up. A good example is a company travel policy. It may be obvious to Finance that Finance is the home of the travel policy, but if a user expects it in HR, how would they know to visit another internal area of an intranet?
We used to view this as evolutionary – meaning, how you get users to stop emailing each other for advice and build a self-navigating web site? In this view, users began by always asking other users where to find things, then progressed to search, and “matured” to a self-navigating site taxonomy.
It doesn’t work that way anymore. The rise of search oriented user interfaces like FAST and social networking has changed this paradigm. I don’t think you can expect a progressive evolution from Mailers to Browsers anymore. Instead, all usage styles can be expected at any point in a site evolution. De-emphasizing search or overlooking social networking may disregard a permanent part of your user population. Remember, no two people – including you – use a site the same way.