After determining a site’s navigation, or information architecture (IA), it should be put to the test with your users. Brainstorming and card sorting can help determine and validate the main levels. But, with deeper menus, it is worth considering a tree test.
A tree test is a method where users are asked to find something in an IA (usually for websites or software) and their path is recorded. Tree tests can be done with index cards, or with online tools (like PlainFrame and Treejack). The benefit of using online tools is that you can send the test to many people, quickly and easily. You can send a link in an email to a bunch of people, sit back and collect responses. The benefit of in-person tree tests is that you can ask follow-up questions and it can be tacked on to something else you are already doing (like an in-person interview). Currently, both online solutions available do not offer the ability to ask why a user picked a particular path.
PlainFrame, which came out of beta on January 11, 2011, is the newest online tool to conduct tree tests from the same company that does the online card sorting tool WebSort. PlainFrame is the most affordable solution to conduct tree tests. Here’s an example of how a task looks on PlainFrame.
Unfortunately, PlainFrame still is new and has some issues (like the task being cut-off on the top).
PlainFrame allows you to have either a vertical or horizontal-style menu. You can also have menus in the header (upper right) and the footer (bottom middle). You can customize the tree test with a logo. Results are collected by simply sharing a link with the people you want to collect results from. The results are presented in a simple format, without graphs. But, you can easily export to Excel where you can generate any graphs you need.
The first-to-market online tree test solution was TreeJack, from Optimal Workshop. Here’s an example of how a task looks on TreeJack:
TreeJack looks less like an actual navigation, but should be just as effective.
TreeJack allows you to customize your tree test’s look and feel beyond adding a logo. Like PlainFrame, you send a link out to collect results. Unlike PlainFrame, TreeJack has a dashboard which shows useful visualizations about the data you have collected. Even the exported Excel results are formatted nicely.
Tree testing is still a relatively new method to refine information architectures. Tree tests can either be conducted in-person or online with either PlainFrame or TreeJack. TreeJack is the more expensive tool, but has two main benefits: it is highly customizable, and it has useful reporting features.