One question that I get asked quite a bit by
attendees or by clients that we consult with is, “If we have a limited budget to make
improvements to our site, should we invest it in improving our internal search: giving people better search results? Or should we invest it in improving
our information architecture and the visible navigation that’s
available to users on the page?” How do you know? How do you decide
which one deserves your research dollars? Well, to answer that question
let’s first back up. What is it that makes someone use
search versus navigation? People are likely to use search if
they know that your site searches a whole universe. So something like Google or YouTube or Amazon, people are generally pretty confident that if they
take the time to type in a search query they’re going to get results that
get them closer to their goal. Now many sites don’t have that luxury. Not all users are aware of the
whole scope of our offerings (wouldn’t that be nice). So instead users will look to
navigation to help learn about this website’s offerings: what is it that
we offer, what can we provide in terms of services or help or support. So for that reason, for many cases your
navigation is going to be critical. Now one other reason why it’s
often really useful to invest in better navigation and categories is because search requires a lot of effort. People have to actually take the time to recall
a keyword that’s going to help them. They have to think about what’s the best way
that the site is going to know what I want, and now let me type that in. And speaking of typing, typing
can be pretty effortful, especially if it’s on a touchscreen,
like a mobile device or a tablet. So there’s a high burden to search and there’s
a high risk that when a user does a search that they’re going to get no results. So for that reason you really want to make
sure that your navigation categories help do that work of providing the user with a
sense of what’s in the information space. They’re more likely to be able
to discover information that they didn’t know was there,
and they’ll more likely be able to find information that they came looking for. On the other hand, you might decide
to invest in search if you’re confident that your users expect search to be the
primary way navigate on your site, and if you’re confident that your users know the whole range of your product offerings. But for the vast majority of cases,
the short answer is you’re going to have to invest in both.