GC Usability Resolution 3: Stop trying to pigeon-hole your IA into action-based tasks.
(part 3 of 5)
As explained in the TBS Guidance on Implementing the Standard on Web Usability, “a good navigation approach focuses on tasks; it does not represent an organizational chart”. But how literally should we really take the word task?
It has been our experience that task can be conflated to mean action. And in many cases an action-based web information architecture (IA) is ideal as verbs can definitely aid users in completing very definitive tasks (for example, “Apply for a grant”). Users are typically on your site to do something. But what about those tasks that are more passive in nature – for instance, when the action is simply to gather information about a topic? A list of tasks that all start with “learn about…” doesn’t make for easy navigation.
In their article Intranet IA Trends, Nielsen Norman Group explains that, “a common pitfall with task-based IAs is difficult-to-scan category names. Organizations think that category names need to start with verbs or follow an ‘I need to…’ pattern in order to be task based. This isn’t necessary…task-based IA doesn’t require any particular grammatical structure for labels; it just means grouping information according to how employees use it, rather than by who creates and maintains it”.
There are two key points here: scannability and accuracy. Firstly, if the user can’t scan the task, and the verb used doesn’t stand out before the subject, then there is a good chance they will miss the link. Secondly, the navigation label should be the most accurate representation of the information within, and an action-based label doesn’t necessarily take into account supporting information. For example, if I want to apply for a grant, there are elements outside of the action of applying (for example, learning about requirements, submitting documentation, troubleshooting) that aren’t addressed by the “Apply for a grant” label. If the other content isn’t presented by navigation labels, then how does the user find that information?
The lesson here? Take a hybrid approach to IA task-based labels. Give yourself room to include verbs where they make sense, and also to ditch them when they don’t. This comes down to how the information is being used. If it’s intended for the user to complete a specific task, then go for it – use verbs to help guide the user. But if there’s more to the information than just the task (such as learning about a process of applying before actually applying), consider creating a navigation and labeling structure that is broader and encompasses both the active and passive functions of the information.
We all know the true GC new year starts April 1st, but regardless, we thought we would take this opportunity to take stock of the past year in usability across the NCR and bring you five GC web usability new year resolutions. This blog series tackles the following resolutions:
Usability Resolution 1: Work on governance before you work on anything else.
Usability Resolution 2: Think by topic, not who owns the topic.
Usability Resolution 3: Stop trying to pigeon-hole your IA into action-based tasks.
Usability Resolution 4: If you’re the only one who is going to read it, don’t publish it.
Usability Resolution 5: Test for failures, not successes.