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Research Finds a Way

A step-by-step guide to improving app navigation through UX research

Navigation is one of the most important things to get right in an app. To be successful, every app needs to let people get to what’s important to them and do what the app is designed for. Luckily, improving an app’s navigation is something that research can greatly influence.

That’s in part because of the fresh perspective research provides. For engineers, designers, and even researchers who work closely with an app’s features, it’s often hard to see navigation the way a user does. Research can show you how people approach the app, identify navigation pain points, and provide measurable ways of improving their experiences.

For a little over a year now, I’ve been conducting research to ensure Facebook’s navigation is the best it can be. I’ve learned a lot along the way about how to go about understanding big issues, assessing changes, and driving positive experiences for people.

Here are a handful of my go-to methods for improving app navigation through research.

Step 1: Be mindful

Imagine that someone comes into your home and rearranges everything in your kitchen cabinets. This could go horribly or wonderfully, but either way, there’s going to be a learning curve. It might take weeks to remember that your soup bowls are now in the left cabinet. And if your favorite wine glass is now on the very top shelf, instead of within easy reach, you may never get used to it.

Keep this scenario in mind whenever you make a change to your app navigation — you’re literally moving around people’s things. That’s why it’s important to only make changes that will significantly benefit people. And if a change doesn’t seem to be working, don’t be too quick to throw in the towel. Give people time to settle into the change, even if accidental clicks increase or sentiment dips. It’s often best to wait a month or so before deciding whether the change was a good one.

Step 2: Baseline the experience

Before making any changes to your app, research can help you baseline how well people are currently able to navigate it and identify key areas of improvement in a measurable way. Most apps have a handful of core tasks — the ones you want everyone who uses your app to be able to complete. For example, on Facebook we want to ensure people are able to navigate to their Profile or favorite Facebook Group easily, among other things. You probably have hunches about which of tasks are easy for people to do and which are more difficult. But in order to make something easier to do, you need to define how you’ll measure improvement. You can do so by completing a baseline usability study that measures task success and time on task.

This kind of study can tell you:

  • How successfully people are completing core tasks. A baseline usability study can help you prioritize which tasks need improving and give you a percentage to improve on through design changes. For example, say that sending a message is a core task. You could ask people in a lab setting (either remote or in person) to send one and then measure the percentage who did it successfully. If only 25% of people figured out how to do it, your team now has a baseline number to build on.
  • Why people are failing at the tasks.
    - Some participants go where you wouldn’t expect.
    A usability study can also uncover mental models that people bring to the app. For example, if one of your core features lives within a certain area of the app, but participants look for it elsewhere, you could conclude that access to it should be moved or duplicated.
    - Confusing labels and iconography. You might also find that people fail because they can’t identify the icon or name of the feature. This finding might lead to cognitive testing of labels and iconography that you might not otherwise have known were an issue.
    - Other surprises. This method can also reveal major usability issues and bugs, demographic differences in understandability of features, and other “aha!” moments that seem obvious in retrospect. For example, one baseline study showed us that many features in our app’s navigation menu had similar functions, which made it hard for participants to find what they were looking for.

Step 3: Test solutions

Before investing time and resources in the engineering work behind a navigation change, make sure you’re confident that the change will actually move your overall metrics. Iterative design testing can help you determine whether findability will in fact be improved. This is where tools like Optimal Workshop and User Testing can come in handy.

Design mocks and prototypes can be used in a wide range of tests. Here are some to consider:

  • Card sort. During a card sort, participants group items into categories, helping you see how they mentally classify them. If you’re considering making your navigation more hierarchical, or grouping features in any way, a card sort can help you choose the best ways to do so.
  • Tree study. Once you’ve decided what you want groupings to be (perhaps based on card sorts and your team’s goals), you can test how well people complete tasks based on the new hierarchy vs. the current structure. Keep in mind that this won’t account for the design, but only the hierarchy. You’ll still want to assess the impact any design change has on findability later.
  • Click tests. A well-known study suggests that when users’ first click is on the right path, 87% will eventually succeed, compared to only 46% of those who started down the wrong path. Once you have a new design/change for your navigation, you can complete an unmoderated click test. You ask participants to complete a task and then measure the success (and time) of that critical first click. This works best when you have half your participants use the old design and half use the new. If the new design doesn’t yield better first clicks, it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board.
  • Concept and prototype testing. Once you have interactive designs, it’s important to get them in front of users, especially if the changes are radical. This can be done through concept tests with storyboards or videos, or through interactive prototypes. Participants can tell you how the changes feel as well as what’s clear and what’s confusing.

Step 4: Understand user sentiment

If people don’t feel good about how they get to the things that are important to them, they likely won’t feel good about your app. The above steps may not capture how people feel about the system or capture other concerns related to app navigation. Measuring user sentiment can also uncover issues such as size of navigation buttons, understanding, relevancy, and ease of use.

Adding qualitative insights to your quantitative measures can give you a more complete picture of people’s experiences with your app.

  • Gather qualitative feedback. Start by asking about overall satisfaction and ease of use for your different navigation structures and — more importantly — why people feel good or bad about those structures. These qualitative responses, collected via survey, interview, focus group, etc., can help you understand what’s upsetting people.
  • Dig deeper. Survey a representative sample of your overall user base about those feelings to get a better sense of how prevalent the problems are. For example, if your initial qualitative work told you there were too many options in a menu, you could then include a 5-point Likert-scale survey question such as: “To what extent do you agree or disagree that there are too many options in this menu?”

As in step 2, you can set goals for improving navigation sentiment through the survey metrics you create out of your qualitative findings. Just as you can A/B test and track behavioral metric changes, you can survey both groups and see if your user sentiment significantly changes.

These are just a few of my favorite methods, but I think they offer lots of opportunity to deliver real positive impact for users — and to get your stakeholders excited about the research you’re doing. I’d love to hear how you study and measure navigation, so please share your own go-to methods in the comments.

Author: Jessica Drum, UX Researcher at Facebook

Illustrator: Drew Bardana



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Jessica Drum

Jessica Drum

I’m a UX researcher with a back ground in community psychology. I spend my days working to make the world more open and connected.