Faceted navigation is widespread on the web (a.k.a faceted search and faceted browse). It’s become an expected standard. I’ve written several posts on the subject and also have a popular workshop on faceted navigation. (Next one: 22 Oct 2011 in NYC). Yet we really don’t know much about the ROI of faceted navigation. Or do we?

I’ve only been able to find a few studies or case studies reporting a measureable ROI of faceted navigation. There are lots of variables in play, and definitively showing measureable gains directly to faceted navigation can be tricky. But a simple before-and-after comparison should be possible.

One helpful sources is Endeca’s case studies. Examples of ROI include:

  • Kiddicare.com: 100% increase in conversion rates; 100% increase in sales; Additional 100% increase in conversion rates with PowerReviews
  • AutoScout 24: 5% increase in lead generation to dealers; 70% decrease in no results found
  • Otto Group: 130% increase in conversion rates; Doubled conversion rates for visitors originating from pay-per-click marketing programs; Search failure rate decreased from over 33% to 0.5%

If you have such data or evidence in any form, please let me and others know about by commenting here. Note I’m not talking about studies that show how efficient faceted navigation is in terms of interaction or time on task (such as the ones reported here): I’m looking for hard evidence on ROI in real world situations.

It’s a positive sign that so many websites have faceted navigation these days: there must be something “right” about it. But why have so many site owners and stakeholders funded and implemented faceted navigation systems? What’s the actual return against the cost of implementation and maintenance?

Some logical arguments include combinations of the following:

  • Conversion: Customers can’t buy what they can’t find: Findability is critical for ecommerce sites.  A well-designed navigation plays a key role in getting people to the information or products you want to see. This ultimately helps you sell products or ideas. Faceted navigation has been shown to improve findability, in general.
  • Efficiency: Employees lose productivity when navigation is inefficient: These days company intranets can be enormous. The time to find information impacts employee productivity. Even the smallest increase in navigational efficiency can have huge returns for a large corporation if you multiple it by thousands of employees. Faceted navigation is efficient.
  • Confidence: Faceted navigation increases information scent: Revealing facet values gives users better insight into the type of terms and language used on the site. They are then able to match their information need with the content of the site, giving them confidence as the navigate forward through a given collection. This keeps them on the site and away from the customer support hotline.
  • “Aboutness”: Facets show the overall semantic make-up of a collection: Faceted metadata–the values associated with a collection of documents or products–give clues into the “aboutness” of that collection. Facets convey the breadth and type of a results list, for instance. This can help get to their target information better.
  • Reduced Uncertainty: Users don’t have to specify precise queries: With faceted navigation, users don’t rely on formulating precise keyword searches alone to find information. Instead, they can enter broad searches and use the facets in a flexible way to refine the initial query. This gives confidence in being comprehensive and reduces uncertainty in information seeking in general, as well as removes the frustration of finding no results.
  • Navigation: Browsing categories provides a different experience than keyword search: Jared Spool and his colleagues found that people tend to continue shopping more often when navigating than after doing a direct keyword search: people tend to continue browsing—and buying—when they can successfully navigate to the products they want to purchase. Sure, keyword searching may also get them there, but that experience is different. He writes in an article entitled “Users Continue After Category Links” (Dec 2001):
    • Apparently, the way you get to the target content affects whether you’ll continue looking or not. In a recent study of 30 users, we found that if the users used Search to locate their target content on the site, only 20% of them continued looking at other content after they found the target content. But if the users used the category links to find their target, 62% continued browsing the site. Users who started with the category links ended up looking at almost 10 times as many non-target content pages as those who started with Search.

A well-designed faceted navigation system won’t solve all your problems. But because navigation is so central to the basic web experience, it stands to reason that that are financial implications involved. What are they exactly?

Again, if you have any support for the above contentions or have another argument around the benefits of faceted navigation, please let me know.

We’re pleased to announce the line up for the EuroHCIR 2011 workshop–the first HCIR event to be held outside the US. It will be held as part of the British HCI Conference in Newcastle on July 4.  The program will include:

  • Short slots for oral presentations of the 9 accepted papers
  • A keynote address
  • A poster session
  • Interactive group activities
You don’t need to register for the HCI Conference to participate in the workshop. Please join us!

Accepted Papers

  • The potential of Recall and Precision as interface design parameters for information retrieval systems situated in everyday environments
    Ayman Moghnieh and Josep Blat
  • The Mosaic Test: Benchmarking Colour-based Image Retrieval Systems Using Image Mosaics
    William Plant, Joanna Lumsden and Ian Nabney.
  • Exploratory Search in an Audio-Visual Archive: Evaluating a Professional Search Tool for Non-Professional Users
    Marc Bron, Jasmijn Van Gorp, Frank Nack and Maarten De Rijke
  • A Taxonomy of Enterprise Search
    Tony Russell-Rose, Joe Lamantia and Mark Burrell
  • Evaluating the Cognitive Impact of Search User Interface Design Decisions
    Max L. Wilson
  • Supplying Collaborative Source-code Retrieval Tools to Software Developers
    Juan M. Fernández-Luna, Juan F. Huete and Julio Rodriguez-Cano
  • Problem Solved: A Practical Approach to Search Design
    Vegard Sandvold
  • Back to MARS: The unexplored possibilities in query result visualization
    Alfredo Ferreira, Pedro B. Pascoal and Manuel J. Fonseca.
  • Interactive Analysis and Exploration of Experimental Evaluation Results
    Emanuele Di Buccio, Marco Dussin, Nicola Ferro, Ivano Masiero, Giuseppe Santucci and Giuseppe Tino

Accepted Posters

  • Towards User-Centered Retrieval Algorithms
    Manuel J. Fonseca
  • Design Thinking Search User Interfaces
    Arne Berger
  • The Development and Application of an Evaluation Methodology for Person Search Engines
    Roland Brennecke, Thomas Mandl and Christa Womser-Hacker

I’m honored to be on the organizing team for the first European workshop on HCIR at the HCI 2011 conference in Newcastle on July 4. See the workshop website for more details.

We are looking for submissions from industry professionals, as well as from academics. If you work in related areas–such as IA, UX, search systems design, etc.–we’d love to hear about your practical experience in the form of a short position paper. The call for papers is now open.

What is HCIR, you ask? Human computer Information Retrieval (HCIR) is a relatively new area of investigation that brings together concerns of human-computer interaction (HCI) and information retrieval (IR). The term was coined by Professor Gary Marchionini around 2005. Wikipedia defines HCIR as:

…the study of information retrieval techniques that bring human intelligence into the search process. The fields of human–computer interaction (HCI) and information retrieval (IR) have both developed innovative techniques to address the challenge of navigating complex information spaces, but their insights have often failed to cross disciplinary borders. Human–computer information retrieval has emerged in academic research and industry practice to bring together research in the fields of IR and HCI, in order to create new kinds of search systems that depend on continuous human control of the search process.

HCIR includes a ranges of techniques and approaches that allow people to better interact with information and find what they are looking for, such as auto-complete, spell correction, and relevance feedback. A significant amount of attention is given to faceted navigation.

If you will be in Hamburg or Sydney in April, consider attending one of my workshops. I’ll be focusing on some of these aspects of HCIR around IA, web navigation, and faceted navigation:

1. In GERMAN: UX Workshops in Hamburg by NetFlow, 11-12 April

2. in ENGLISH: ANZ UX Workshops in Sydney, 28-29 April
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Are you in OZ and want to learn about faceted search, strategic alignment diagrams, IA, navigation and more this April? I’m  delighted to announce that I’ll be giving 2 workshops in Sydney on April 28-29, 2011!

See the workshop website for more information.

Here are some highlights:

WORKSHOP 1: Information Architecture for Strategic Web Design

Thursday 28 April 2011, 9:30-17:00 – This workshop focuses on the conceptual and strategic side of information architecture (IA). Topics include: alignment diagrams, mental models, concept maps, Cores and Paths, information structures and facets.

WORKSHOP 2: Web Navigation Design

Friday 29 April 2011, 9:30-17:00 – This workshop focuses on the nuts and bolts of good navigation design. Topics include principles of web navigation, navigation mechanisms, types of navigation, the scent of information, and faceted navigation.

COST

  • Earlybird (to April 2): AUD 660
  • Regular Price: AUD 759

AUDIENCE

Beginner to intermediate web designers, interaction designers and IAs; usability experts looking to improve web design skills; and project managers, product mangers, and others seeking to better understand web navigation design.

See the registration details page for more information and to sign up.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the role of paper and offline information resources in our overall information experience as humans interact with information. Some recent projects and research at work put the topic back on my plate. It was also part of my talk at the Euro IA conference (see Commercial Ethnography: Innovating Information Experiences).

A while back, I published a short essay on the potential importance of a creating print-friendly web pages. See Printing the Web in Boxes and Arrows (2003). The motivation for that article came from the observation that people quite like to print things from the web, as well as printing things like email. It seemed to me at the time that perhaps there is even a higher use of paper in offices since the web came along than before. So, our experience with a website may extend offline as well, and designers should consider how to best create print-friendly content.

Then, while at the CHI conference this year, I came across two fascinating exhibits related to paper. The first was digital paper, also called interactive paper. The second was iCandy, a program that allows you to print from your iTunes collections. Both of these stood out, particularly at a conference where digital interfaces are the focus of attention. With iCandy, for instance, the inventor was taking something that wasn’t originally available offline–iTunes–and making it available in paper format. Why bother, I thought? Is the experience with iTunes not sufficient? Is there something missing or something better than interacting with my music collection with iTunes? These two exhibits, as well as my own observations, suggest that yes–there is something with experiencing information on paper that gets completely lost in electronic formats.

Even more recently, I came across a post from innovation guru Scott Anthony about Plastic Logic’s new reader device. Interestingly, the hurdle he sees for Plastic Logic with their new reader is an experiential one:

But think about that target user. Hassled executives have defined patterns of behavior about how they interact with documents. They are used to flipping, scribbling, and shuffling through those documents. Sure, the weight of the paper can be cumbersome, but Plastic Logic faces an uphill climb if its device makes it harder rather than easier to review and comment on documents.

The experience we have with print materials is, in Anthony’s opinion, a potential showstopper for widespread acceptance of new reading devices. But it’s not just a matter of habit that we gravitate to read things on paper: there are real benefits of working with a multi-dimensional medium like paper that get lost in electronic formats.

Finally, Peter Merholz just posted about the paperless office again. He reaches back to a previous posting of his in which he disagrees with Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker in 2002 on the topic. Peter makes some good points, but he’s also a little myopic on this one, particularly when making conclusions based on what he sees at his office. The habits of a cutting-edge, digital design office (Adaptive Path) hardly represent how people in other industries and businesses use paper.

I personally don’t foresee the complete disappearance of paper in the office in the near future, but I believe the time will come when online information experiences are rich enough to make it truly more advantageous to read a document from a computer screen than from paper. But even then, paper resources will still have a role. As noted at the end of an article entitled “On its way, at last” in The Economist–the catalyst for Peter’s post–we’ll probably see a re-purposing of paper. And Peter himself mentions such a shift as well in the Adaptive Path office.

Paradigm shifts with other types of media have also seen this type of re-purposing of old, incumbent media. As the radio became widespread, for instance, the initial reporting of a news event stopped being  communicate by lads standing on the corner shouting “Extra, Extra.” As a result, newspapers become more process-oriented. In other words, radio took over the announcing role, and people then got the details of the event from the newspaper. But newspapers didn’t go away.

So I don’t think we’ll see the completely paperless office, at least not on a widespread basis. Sure, some companies may actually achieve a paperless office, but they will be the exception rather than the norm. Instead, paper will come to serve a different role. It will be used for informal communication and extra-work events, or for brainstorming session and other creative exercises, or for official documents that require a signature and a company seal, for instance. There will be less of it, for sure–particularly for administrative things–but a completely paperLESS office is not only NOT in our future, but probably a bad idea.

As David Gelernter said back in 2000 in his Computer Manifesto:

“The ‘paperless office’ is a bad idea because paper is one of the most useful and valuable media ever invented.”

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