Tree testing is a user research method used to understand how easy it is to find things on your website. If you have a website or product with any type of navigation whatsoever, you should utilize tree testing.

Preparing for a Tree Sort Study

First, recruit participants who are both familiar and unfamiliar with your website or product. You can use PlaybookUX participants to recruit or use your own participants.

Now that you have your study participants, you can create tasks for them to walk through. The method for structuring these tasks is extremely important to the validity of your user research output.

A step-by-step guide to structuring your study

1. List out the high-level organization of your site and any sub-menus.

2. Ask participants to find a specific item. You’ll have participants click through the menus until they find the specific item, or until they give up. This is considered one task.

3. Make sure to repeat these steps with each task.

4. You should have 10-20 participants complete this study for more accurate results.

An Example Tree Sort Task

Let’s walk through an example task for Target’s website. Here is an image of Target’s menu.

Target’s high-level groups and subgroups are defined here.

The first task is to find women’s multi-vitamins.

Let’s say they click Categories. Participants will see the sub-groups of women, accessories, toys, electronics, etc.

Since they’re looking for women’s multivitamins, they may accidentally click on “Women” and see the following menu.

Realizing that multi-vitamins are not found in this category, they go back and click “Health” in which they see “Vitamins & Supplements”.

They click on “Vitamins & Supplements” and that’s the correct answer.

After that, the participant will be asked another task.

Analyzing the Results

Once you have conducted the tree testing study, you should analyze the results. You should gather a variety of data points such as

  • Were participants able to find items successfully?

  • How many people failed to complete the task?

  • Did people give up?

  • Did participants backtrack? In the above example, the participant clicked the category: “Women” then realized their error, and clicked “Health”.

  • Were they able to make quick decisions to find the item?

Next, you want to tally all of the successes, failures, and backtracks. This allows you to benchmark this study with future studies to ensure your navigation find-ability is improving over time.

If participants are backtracking, giving up, or taking too much time to decide between the different categories, you should improve your navigation and test again.

Moderated vs Unmoderated Tree Testing

You can perform tree tests in a moderated or an unmoderated session. With moderated tree testing, you’ll schedule an interview where the participant will talk you through their rationale.

With an unmoderated tree test, the participant will record their screen, while answering the tasks and speaking their thoughts out loud.

You can conduct tree testing in person, using index cards, or virtually using an online user research software, like PlaybookUX.


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