Oh, Records colleagues: I have two very easy reads that will only help you create a folder hierarchy in your electronic records and information management software. Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense and Approach to Web Usability” and “Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems” are very good and immediately useful. If you don’t have two hours to read them yourself, however, let me summarize the first one for you here.
When filing a record, users glance at each folder, scan some of the titles, and click on the first one that somewhat matches the subject content of their document.
1. They scan because they’re in a hurry and they don’t need to read everything.
2. They’re good at scanning.
Users choose the first reasonable folder.
For users, there’s no penalty for guessing the wrong folder and there is no benefit for weighing options.
Superficially, “number of clicks” seems a useful comparison, but users don’t mind a lot of clicks as long as each click is painless and they’re confident they’re on the right track.
Users will muddle through the records software that houses their folders. They won’t ask you, because it’s not important to them. But they will find a way to circumvent filing.
If they feel smart and in control when they visit your software, they’ll return.
Advice for You, the Designer
Hierarchy designers are all beginners under the skin.
Your job is to get rid of the question marks.
A hierarchy has three traits:
1. The more important a folder is, the more prominent it is.
2. Folders that are related logically are related visually.
3. Nested folders visually show what is what.
A good visual hierarchy organizes and prioritizes content in a way that users can grasp instantly.
You must give lower-level navigation the same attention as the top.
Take advantage of conventional hierarchal structures.
Break up your sections into clearly defined areas.
Reduce noise level—omit needless folders.
Colleagues won’t use your hierarchy if they can’t find their way around it.
Build signs into your hierarchy to guide your users.
The Nature of Hierarchies
Hierarchies are strange. They’re weightless. In reality, they have:
1. No sense of scale.
2. No sense of direction.
3. No sense of location.
Navigation gives users something to hold on to, it tells users what’s there, tells them how to use the site, and most importantly, gives confidence in the people who built it.
1. Every folder needs a name.
2. The name needs to be in the right place.
3. The name needs to be prominent.
4. The name needs to match what the user clicks.
Folders get breadcrumbs.
Use tabs: they’re self-evident, hard to miss, slick, and suggest a physical space. Color-code them if you wish.
Think about what the primary level has to do:
1. Communicate a mission.
2. Overview of the hierarchy.
4. Be timely.
5. Show the users what they’re looking for—and what they’re not looking for.
6. Give users a start.
7. Establish credibility and trust.
Everyone wants in on the hierarchy. Everyone will have an opinion. It must appeal to everyone. Users should be able to say with confidence, “I start here.”
Hierarchy designers are hierarchy users.
If you want a great hierarchy, you’ve got to test it.
Testing with one user is better than testing with none.
Testing with a user early in the project is better than testing late.
The importance of recruiting Super Users is overrated.
The point of testing is to inform your judgment.
Testing is iterative.
Nothing beats a live audience reaction.
It’s usually not a good idea to design a hierarchy so that only your target audience can use it.
Test users with divergent needs from each group at least once.
Recruit people with domain knowledge.
Keep the invitation simple.
Avoid discussing the hierarchy beforehand.
Users have a reservoir of goodwill:
1. It’s idiosyncratic.
2. It’s situational.
3. You can refill it.
4. Sometimes a single mistake can empty it.
Things that diminish goodwill:
1. Hiding information from users.
2. Punishing users for not doing what you want.
3. Asking for information they don’t need.
4. Con jobs.
5. Unnecessary flash.
6. An amateur job.
Things that increase goodwill:
1. Know what users want in their hierarchy.
2. Tell them what they want to know.
3. Save them steps.
4. Put effort in.
5. Know the questions your users are likely to have.
6. Provide a comforting atmosphere.
7. Make it easy to recover from errors.
8. When in doubt, apologize.
The three things you can do right now:
1. Fix the usability problems that confuse everyone.
3. Go for the low-hanging fruit.
Krug, Steve. “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.”
Berkeley: New Riders Publishing. 2006.