The 4 ways people use your website and what you should do about it

I know some people who hate asking for directions and will avoid it until they have exhausted all other alternatives.  Finally, embarrassed and forced to admit to themselves that they can’t find their way, they stop for directions.  At the other end of the spectrum are those who ask for directions before they even start driving.  Regardless of which category you most identify with, both groups have one thing in common – no one likes the feeling that comes with being lost or looking for something and not finding it.  The same holds true online.  When people can’t find what they’re looking for on one website, they go looking for it elsewhere.  Let’s take a look at the four ways that people seek information on websites and how you can best help them find what they are looking for.

Mall directories are intuitive and complete - just like your web navigation should be

Mall directories are intuitive and complete – just like your web navigation should be

Known-item search

Sometimes the people coming to your website know exactly what they are looking for and exactly what it is called.  A typical example of this is when a person goes online to buy toner for their laser printer.  They know exactly what the toner cartridge model number is or they know exactly what printer model they need the toner cartridge to fit.

People on a search for a known-item are best served with a strong hierarchical navigation layout that is intuitive to use as well as a website search feature. Be sure that the search feature on your website allows people who misspell what they are searching for to still find the proper results. Nothing is more aggravating when you’re searching than getting bad search results just because of a spelling problem. This is really about enabling the shopper to find what they are looking for without slowing them down.

Exploratory seeking

This situation is typical when a person is aware of a need, but aren’t yet certain what the solution will be.  For example, someone is looking for a desktop scanner.  They know they need a scanner.  They want one with a fairly small footprint, but they aren’t sure which brand or which model will be the best solution for them.

In this situation, the best way to help them find the solution on your website, instead of them going elsewhere, is to make sure you have two different kinds of navigation in place.  Firstly, you’ll need a good hierarchical navigation model (think: category, sub-category, product) so that they can drill down and see what options are available.  Category pages are a good example of this type of navigation in use on e-commerce sites.  Secondly, you’ll need a good associative navigation structure in place.  Often this takes the form of informing people about similar or related items.

Don’t know what I need to know

This situation happens when a person knows that they need something, but doesn’t yet know enough about the subject to pick the right solution.  For example if a person decides to buy a digital camera, they may decide that they first need to find out what megapixels are, what optical zoom is, and what flash memory is, before they can decide exactly which camera will be the best fit for their situation.  The person is looking for a solution (camera) but discover that they really need to look for other information first.

People who are in this situation are best served with the same website navigation methods as the exploratory seeking group.  Ensuring that you provide rich information about the products on your website as well as educating shoppers about making the best selection is essential for success with this group.


Re-finding is what happens when a person comes to your website looking to locate something that they previously found.  Yes, they could have favorited or bookmarked it, but you can’t count on that.  Instead, you’ve got to help them find what they’re looking for.

If they remember exactly what it was called, the website’s search feature is often used.  Otherwise, they’ll have to depend on your website’s navigation.  This includes both the hierarchical navigation (think category, sub-category, product) as well as associative navigation (think similar to / related to) choices that are usually displayed at the product page level.  An additional tool that you can use to help people in their quest to re-find something is to show them what they’ve recently / previously looked at on your website.

For most websites, really helping the people who are coming to your site is about getting out of their way.  It is about making it easy for them to accomplish what they set out to accomplish.  The folks visiting your website fit into all four categories above.  When they come, will they find what they are looking for?  They will if your website was designed according to strong website usability (UX) principles.  Take a fresh look at your website and see what needs to be tightened up with regard to your website usability so that those coming to your site will find what they’re looking for – every time.

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