Forget The Trail Of Breadcrumbs

The Importance of Designing a Different Navigation Structure by: and   |  Posted on

Enterprises often have a simplistic understanding of navigational structures in UX Design. Companies shy away from messing with known organizational schemas for fear that their users or customers will become confused and run away. We don’t give our users enough credit.

As a result, most software navigational structures either reflect hierarchical departmental company/brand organization (because how can users be confused by that?), or a very top-heavy list of bucketed themes loosely based on general product “themes”  (hello Amazon!). 

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Architecting Your Future: Conquering Imposter Syndrome

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Imagine walking into a packed conference room (or jumping on a zoom call) for a meeting on a pressing topic. As you find your seat, you start to feel like the temperature is rising and your heartbeat quickens, your mind races through the questions that could be thrown your way. The meeting starts and things begin on a good note. The discussion is moving forward and then it happens: someone directs a question at you. It feels like a game of hot potato and all you want to do is get that question out of your hands! You answer quickly, gauging the faces in the room as you respond, wondering who here will expose you as a complete and total fraud. 

As two designers new to the tech and product space, we both have had our fair share of experiences with imposter syndrome. Shara is a high achiever, woman of color who made the switch to tech late in her career. Attending bootcamp with peers 10 years her junior, she often felt insecurity about her decision to transition into product design. Would anyone take her seriously? Madeline spent over 7 years working in documentary film. When she wasn’t filming interviews, she was cleaning camera lenses. Making a complete career shift into UX design not only felt like she was jumping into a deep ocean without any swimming lessons, but that she was up against olympians with established records and achievements.

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Taxonomies: Connecting Users to Content

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Taxonomies may be thought of as hierarchies of categories to group and organize information to be found when browsing, or as a structured set of terms used to tag content so that it can be retrieved efficiently and accurately. Sometimes the same taxonomy may serve both purposes, and sometimes two different taxonomies are used, one for each purpose, for the same content or site.

Taxonomies are not new, in fact  there has been a lot written about them, including an informative series of six articles here in Boxes and Arrows by Grace Lau in 2015. An area that still needs to be better understood is exactly how  taxonomies should be designed and implemented to be most effective.

Suiting Users Needs

The previous series of articles on taxonomy by Lau addresses many important points about taxonomies including building the business case for a taxonomy, planning a taxonomy, and taxonomy governance. In the first article of the series, “Planning a Taxonomy Project,” she states: “Understanding the users and their tasks and needs is a foundation for all things UX. Taxonomy building is not any different. …Who are the users? What are they trying to do? How do they currently tackle this problem? What works and what doesn’t? Watch, observe, and listen to their experience.”

In this article, I will explain the role of a taxonomy as a tool that connects users to content.

Image of the relationship between content, taxonomy, and the users. The taxonomy sits between users and content, and information flows in both directions.
The taxonomy sits between users and content, and information flows in both directions.

Understanding the users is of central importance, so let’s consider specifically two techniques we can use to make a taxonomy more suitable for its users: (1) adapting the names or labels of the taxonomy concepts (terms) to the language of the users, and (2) adapting the categorization hierarchy to the expectation of the users. The complexity is to do this for multiple different users with the same taxonomy for the same content.

Different Options for Concept Labels

Different users will call the same thing by different names, whether it’s simple synonyms, such as Doctors vs. Physicians or Cars vs. Automobiles, or words or phrases that are not exact synonyms, but close enough,such as Computer security, Cybersecurity, Information security, IT security.

Different labels for the same concept: Computer security, cybersecurity, information security, IT security.
Different labels for the same concept: Computer security, Information security, Cybersecurity, and IT security

Taxonomies, in contrast to mere navigation labels, make use of such “alternative labels” for each concept, also known as non-preferred terms in thesauri. These are colloquially referred to as synonyms, but they are not exactly synonyms; they are labels for concepts that are sufficiently equivalent for the context of the content and the taxonomy. Thus, users searching on any various alternative labels will retrieve the same concept and it’s associated content.

It is a design choice whether the alternative labels are displayed before redirecting to the concept with the preferred label, or if the redirect is without a display and the user is taken directly to the tagged content set. Displaying alternative labels is educational for repeat visitors, whereas no display of alternative labels to end-users provides a clean, quick user experience. Users may not be aware that their chosen name was actually “alternative” and not “preferred.”

When a taxonomy is displayed for hierarchical browsing, only the preferred labels for each concept can be displayed. Designation of a preferred synonym as the label should reflect the wording preference of the majority of users.  

If there are two distinct sets of users, such as employees and customers, where a number of preferred labels vary, it is possible to create two display versions of the taxonomy. This can be a little more complicated to implement because commercial taxonomy management software typically supports just one preferred (i.e. display) label per concept by default. You may need to create two separate taxonomies and link them at equivalent concepts.

Different Options for Categorization

Different users may categorize differently and will look for the same thing in different places. Lau’s articles gave the example of different users of a kitchen wanting to group different ingredients differently. This would certainly be a challenge in sharing the same physical space. 

Fortunately, taxonomies are used to describe digital space so there is flexibility. While a physical object can exist in only one place in a kitchen, a library shelf, or a store shelf, the same taxonomy concept representing an idea may exist in more than one place in a taxonomy hierarchy.

In another example, some people might categorize Financing agreements under Financial documents and some might put the category under Contracts.Thus, we can have the taxonomy concepts of Financing agreements appear as both a narrower concepts of Financial documents and as a narrower concept of Contracts, and all the same tagged documents will be found in both locations. This is what taxonomists call “polyhierarchy.”

Taxonomy excerpt of the concept Financial documents in a polyhierarchy, appearing under both Contracts and Financial documents.
Taxonomy excerpt of the concept Financial documents in a polyhierarchy, appearing under both Contracts and Financial documents.

One thing to keep in mind is that polyhierarchy is appropriate for hierarchical taxonomies, not for faceted taxonomies of attributes or filters (such as ecommerce facets of Size, Color, Material, and Style), where the same concept should exist in only one facet.

Methods of Obtaining User Input

The methods to develop a taxonomy involving users have some similarities and some differences compared to other UX methods. Card sorting can be used to gather user input for taxonomies, but it is effective only for 2-3 levels of a hierarchical taxonomy and is not as effective for designing facets, where the challenge is to identify ways to describe not ways to categorize. Some hierarchical taxonomies have many more levels, so card sorting is most practical for just the top levels, or else it would become too time-consuming for the multiple hierarchies at each level.Taxonomies are more extensive than just the navigation structure of a website.

Users of a taxonomy include both those who are looking for information and those who would be using the taxonomy to tag content. Representatives of these two different user groups should be interviewed with different questions. For example, those who need to retrieve content may be asked questions around the challenges in finding content and search terms; those who tag content may be asked questions about challenges in finding appropriate terms for tagging. Similarly, user testing of the draft taxonomy should also involve both uses of tagging and uses of retrieval.

Content management users, especially those dealing with particular subject domains, may be asked to submit lists of suggested terms that fall into deeper levels of the taxonomy. Those submitting suggested terms should be provided with clear guidelines, that the terms are for tagging content, so that they do not suggest terms that are too specific and not reflected in the actual content. These terms then should be reviewed and discussed with the taxonomist to make sure that they are suitable for the taxonomy.

Another method to gather user input indirectly for a taxonomy is to analyze search logs to identify what words and phrases users have been entering into a search box to find content. These words and phrases should be considered for alternative labels (synonyms) for taxonomy concepts, and possibly for additional concepts in the taxonomy, if warranted by the content.


While UX research is a formal job role, taxonomy research is not, although there are standard practices. Taxonomy research is rolled into the overall taxonomy design and creation job. Because taxonomies are based on the content they are tagged to, taxonomy creators may fall into the trap of exclusively focusing on making the taxonomy reflect the content without also considering the need of making the taxonomy suitable for its users. Taxonomy user research  may not be as formal or extensive as other UX research, but it is critical to the success of a taxonomy.

Heather Hedden will be conducting a workshop on this topic at the 2021 Information Architecture Conference. Participants will learn taxonomy creation principles and how to address the issues of designing a taxonomy to serve users.

Featured photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash.

Additional images by Linda Ramirez and Heather Hedden.

Focus on Usage Maturity: Part III

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Using a Usage Maturity Matrix to Make Design and Strategy Decisions

Early Foundations

You may recall from earlier installments in this series, that usage maturity is a measure of users’ comfort and familiarity with, and degree of use of, a product, process or place.  

During our master’s capstone research at Kent State, my project partner and I explored the varied levels of usage maturity of participants using Apple’s voice assistant Siri and found usage maturity did not coincide with participants’ tech savviness. 

To illustrate this, think of your own tech savviness and score yourself with one to five stars, five being high. 

Now, think of an app or program that confounds you, that you struggle to learn or use well. 

Do the challenges with that digital experience compel you to lower your tech savviness rating? Probably not, you retain your 3 or 5 or however-many savviness stars, but your usage maturity with that program may be low.

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A Digital Response to the Pandemic

How a Small Team used Citizen Centered Design to make World-First Covid Apps by:   |  Posted on

In March 2020, the pandemic stretched across Europe to the UK and Ireland. As the governments of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic began reporting cases of a deadly new coronavirus strain, both health services began to organize expert teams to take on what would be the biggest threat to public health in generations.

At Big Motive, we have enjoyed the privilege of working with the health service as part of an integrated and multi-disciplined stakeholder team, charged with combatting the virus, breaking chains of transmission, and ultimately saving lives. This is our story about design in response to a pandemic over six months in 2020.

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Customer Experience during a Pandemic

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Global pandemics are a challenge for everyone. Customers look to institutions and businesses they already trust for answers. Meanwhile, companies must scramble to figure out the best way to maintain excellent Customer Experience (CX) during unprecedented times.

No matter what the economy does, you can take some proactive steps to ensure your customers remain loyal to your brand. Creating an excellent CX takes dedication and focus, especially during a global pandemic.

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Usability Testing Guide

The process of conducting a usability test by:   |  Posted on

Usability testing is a core component of User Centered Design and can be used at any stage in the process. It provides valuable insight into the mind of the user, giving us a better understanding of users’ mental models, and it helps to highlight issues that might negatively impact the experience, while also pointing to solutions. If you are new to Usability Testing and want to learn more or just interested in how someone else approaches it, this article gives an overview of how to set-up and run a usability test, and provides a checklist of things to do to complete a usability testing project.


Here is a brief outline of the different stages involved in setting up a Usability Testing session. I will go into each in greater detail and explain what it is and what you need to do.

  • Briefing Meeting
  • Participant Specification
  • Recruitment
  • Discussion Guide
  • Consent Form
  • Setting Up the Session
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Collaborative Journey Maps

Moving Agile Product Teams from Magic to Mission by:   |  Posted on

In many organizations, the design team does some research then retreats to their tower to conjure deep magics that turn note filled notebooks into a customer journey map. At least that’s what it looks like to their peers.

IMG scribble, magic, journey map

Journey diagrams capture tons of detailed info about users, processes, and systems. The best teams share the same understanding of the user’s journey. Instead of having your team wonder where you got this information or how you came to these conclusions, have them build the journey map with you.

When you map the user journey with your team, everyone understands what it says and why. When you collaborate with your team, the journey map transforms from the designer’s magic to the team’s mission, representing the journey you shepherd for your users.

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Stop Counting Clicks.

The Myth is Busted. by:   |  Posted on

Every user interaction is a decision. Every decision can lead to an exit. So the more options we offer, the more exit opportunities we create, which will reduce the probability of conversion. Right? Well…

In fact, the number of interactions a user makes is in no way directly related to conversion rates. It might be a surprise, but there is no statistical evidence to prove that this widely held belief is true. When establishing the amount of clicks that are appropriate for a task, it actually solely depends on the requirements regarding complexity, security, and usability. In this article, we’re going to share with you how we use these requirements to assess how many clicks are appropriate on a page. Once we started looking at clicks through this lens, we were able to increase conversion, reduce task time, and increase customer satisfaction. 

The 3-click rule is dead

The “3-Click Rule” has been causing a ruckus for decades. In 2001, Jeffrey Zeldman suggested in his book »Taking Your Talent to the Web« that all information should be available on a website within three clicks. If you take a look at the state that web design was in back then, this isn’t a big surprise. It seemed like the more information that was on the page, the better. At that time of course, the data on interactions with digital services was quite scarce. 

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People Who Design: Connecting Design Communities

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These days, creating a personal website is easy. You don’t need to know about how to code; the newest platforms can host profile pages with templates you can fill in with photos, links, and text about you and your works. Especially if your content all fits in just one page, you have all you need for a website no matter if you’re a media person, digital professional, creative designer, or a tech expert. Having a website really helps to make you relevant and reliable, establishing yourself as a landmark in anything, and everyone knows this. If you’re a company or organization, private or public, it doesn’t matter, you obviously need an online presence.

The Problem

According to the Hosting Tribunal there are about 2 billion websites but less than 400 million of them are active. By the time you finish reading this article, thousands of new sites will spawn. Looking just at blogs and personal pages, stats reveal great prospects for those as well. Every day, over 500 million blogs and 19 million bloggers spawn a massive amount of new content readily available at your fingertips.

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