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Findability in web design and marketing

Author's avatar By Dave Chaffey 03 Jun, 2007
Essential Essential topic

Paul Rouke PRWDIn this E-marketing Essentials interview, I ask web design and usability specialist Paul Rouke for the low-down on findability, which is increasingly applied as a discipline within usability projects, partly prompted by Peter Morville"€™s book "€œAmbient Findability"€.

We define Findability, look at Findability methodologies, some of the biggest mistakes to avoid and as include some practical tips.

Thanks to Paul Rouke for sharing his experience of findability applied to different types of commercial sites. Paul has over 8 years of experience in improving usability for transactional E-commerce sites based on over 6 years as lead user experience designer at Littlewoods Shop Direct (www.lwsdg.co.uk) and more recently with his web design and usability company PRWD (www.prwd.co.uk).

He also writes at www.paulrouke.co.uk on usability, user experience and information architecture.

What is findability?

Q1. What do you see as findability? Why is findability relevant to marketers?

Consumers today are using more diverse channels to find the product / article / review / price they are looking for.

I describe findability as the success in which the consumer can fulfil their search, whether that be
through a search engine query, browsing a website, viewing blogs on a particular subject, browsing the web through their mobile phone or PDA, reading magazines and newspapers or asking a sales assistant in-store for a
particular product.

If a consumer is struggling to reach their end goal, this can and will lead to frustrations, which in turn impacts the usability of the channel they are currently using.

For marketers, with internet usage continuing to increase, the consumer is now more in the driving seat "€“ no longer may they spend the majority of their time watching tv or reading magazines, their exposure to marketing can
cross all channels, whether web, email, tv, gaming and print. The consumer decides how they consume marketing messages based on their behaviour.

For marketers, embracing the new multi-channel world by ensuring that the product they are trying to market can be accessed through a wide variety of channels, will in turn bring the consumers to them. No longer the "€˜push-effect"€™, but now the "€˜pull-effect"€™ of effective marketing.

A good e-commerce example of this principle is that however strong a brand is, a consumer may expect to be able to find a product not only through the brand site but also through price comparison sites, which people are now using moreto ensure they get the right price for what they are looking for.

Findability methodology

Q2. How do you tackle findability in your usability projects?

A term used alongside findability is information architecture, which in one respect involves the researching, planning and testing of a system or website, which facilitates clear and intuitive findability.

An example of findability within an information architecture project would be when organising around 10,000 products available within an e-commerce site such as Kays and Littlewoods.

Whereas in traditional offline marketing, these products would be grouped firstly by gender or product type, ie. Mens, womens, childrens, electricals, garden, and then within the womens section sub categories for leisurewear, eveningwear, workwear for instance, moving into the online arena, through extensive research and competitor analysis, it became clear that online shoppers didn"€™t usually follow this behaviour, but instead if
they are searching for a womens shirt, they would go to the womens section and then they expect to view all the shirts in one sub-category.

Naturally from here they would expect to be able to filter the shirts by a particular style/colour/fit, but this highlighted a key findability difference between offline catalogue shopping and online e-commerce shopping.

Another aspect of findability within a usability project is for me to ensure that a particular website facilitates all browsing behaviours. On the one hand a visitor may wish to browse through the categories and sub categories
to locate the types of products they are looking for, whereas the next visitor may be in much more of a rush and simply go straight to the on-site search facility and expect to be directed straight to relevant products within the

In addition another visitor may exhibit "€˜follower"€™ behaviour, where they are keen to find out what other people are buying, what are best sellers, what are the latest products available. Therefore a site information architecture
and promotion of product ranges needs to address each of the visitors findability choices.

Additional findability techniques I adopt in E-commerce usability projects are as follows:

  • More like this "€“ when a user has located the type of product or article they are interested in, provide them with a link to the full range of similar items to help them continue their shopping journey
  • Related products "€“ once a user has found a product they are interested in, open up your wider range of products by providing relevant, related products, again enhancing the user experience
  • Breadcrumb trails "€“ highly visible and intuitive breadcrumb trails allow a user to quickly see where they are within a site hierarchy
  • Card sorting "€“ this provides an opportunity for real end users to propose site heirarchy"€™s which when implemented will facilitate much improved findability compared to when just in-house experience is used
  • User testing "€“ one example scenario is users are asked to try and find a particular product or piece of information within a site. The success or failure of the users to find what they are looking for provides clear evidence as to whether the site navigation and information architecture is working for the end user

Biggest Findability errors

Q3. What would you say are the biggest findability errors that e-retail sites typically have from a marketing perspective?

In no particular order, here are some key examples I have experienced:

  • Providing no method to filter product ranges by specific attributes

Multi-faceted navigation is where a site allows a user to filter a particular range of products by the attributes which are important to them. A user may first want to filter by a price range, and then by a colour, and then
by a size. These are natural e-commerce shopping instincts which allow the user to locate specifically the products which meet their requirements. Therefore, a site which provides no means to navigate within a range based on particular attributes is severely limiting the feeling of control that a user should be
getting when they are navigating through a site.

  • In-accurate and misleading on-site search facility

When a user performs a search, they expect to be shown all related products contained within the site. In the worst cases an e-retail site"€™s search engine may be poorly integrated with the product catalogue, therefore returning a message "€˜sorry we don"€™t have any products matching your search"€™.

The truth is that there are products within the site which include the search term, but not all key product data has been properly indexed by the search engine.

The brand trust will therefore diminish, especially if the user is very sure the site stocks the kind of products they are searching for. In addition from a marketing perspective, by not providing alternative search terms, and
ideally spelling mistake corrections, an e-retail site will potentially lose the user as they exit the site in search of a competitor who stocks the products they are looking to find.

To build trust and confidence in a user on a given e-retail site, it is imperative that this facility returns accurate, related products, and that all relevant product information with which a user may be looking for will be
indexed by the on-site search facility.

  • Poorly conceived navigation sign-posting

Navigation structure and naming is key to improving a site"€™s product findability "€“ if a user is unsure on where they expect a product to be located, in the best case scenario they may experience some hesitation and then decide
to just browse a variety of categories to find the product, but in the worst cases a user may lose confidence in the site and exit to another site. It is therefore critical that a sites navigation provides an intuitive and rewarding
browsing experience. Facilitating easy findability will understandably increase the likelihood of the user adding products to their shopping basket, which in turn provides additional cross-sell and up-sell marketing opportunities.

Card-sorting best practice

Q4. I know you're a big advocate of card-sorting. Typically this is part of a heavyweight usability
project. Is there any place for it in improve findability of an existing site which is not due a major upgrade.

Certainly. As mentioned in the last question, a poorly conceived navigation structure which has perhaps been based on internal know-how rather than actual user understanding, can lead to severe findability and usability issues. By arranging user groups to facilitate card sorting, an organisation can get a clearer understanding of how real users expect to find the products/information within the site, along with what navigational naming conventions they would expect to see based on their real-life experiences of other sites.

It is surprising how much a card sorting exercise can enlighten an organisation, and this goes for other usability testing techniques such as user testing, eye-tracking and persona creation/development.

Irrespective of whether the existing site requires a more user centred design, by improving the findability of their whole product range by carrying out card sorting and executing navigational changes, a business can significantly
enhance the likelihood of a user finding (and purchasing) the products they are looking for.

Print-based design vs web-based design

Q5. When working at Littlewoods Shop Direct Group there must have been a tension between print-based design techniques for the catalogues and web-based design techniques. Can web designers learn from the catalogue merchandising techniques. Any tips and tricks?


  • Cross selling

Traditional catalogue merchandising on fashion usually features multiple products to purchase on 1 shot, and provides the order information in the same area to allow for quick and easy ordering from the same page.

A product page on traditional e-commerce sites may feature a similar fashion shot, and perhaps a link to the other products featured within the shot, but for the user to add both items to their shopping basket they need to carry out 2 separate "€˜add to shopping basket"€™ processes.

My tip for this is where possible allow a user to add both (or more than 2) products to their shopping basket at the same stage, therefore providing a
smoother and simpler shopping experience

  • Product comparisons

A marketing technique in catalogue merchandising, particularly for high value items, is to provide comparison grids which highlight all the key features with which a shopper may consider before deciding which item to purchase.

For online merchandising, although product comparisons do feature on some e-commerce sites, the ability to empower a user with the facility for them to choose which products they would like compare is a currently overlooked technique which I feel adds great benefit to the user.

In my experience, users who are using the web to browse for and compare particular products, will spend longer on a site which offer product comparisons compared to one without this facility. I must stress that the user experience of such a facility is crucial, so if a business is considering implementing product comparison facilities, they need to ensure that it provides an intuitive user experience both moving in and out of the functionality.

  • Targeted product marketing

Depending on the type of product, the display of product information in a catalogue will vary. An example would be a pair of trainers which feature a single line description of material, compared with a television which is provided with a feature grid allowing a customer to quickly access all relevant specifications.

Not only can product pages online be structured using a tabbed navigation, to allow for product description, product features, delivery information, product reviews etc, but providing the overall site design remains consistent, utilising different product page user experiences tailored to the type of product can ensure the product has the appropriate marketing online.

This applies also to the visual aspect of selling a product "€“ whereas for a television a user may be satisfied with 1 main front image and perhaps the remote control, an expensive range of furniture would need numerous images
of different pieces, along with detail shots to give a clear representation of the product at different angles.

So my tip is to use the flexibility of the online channel to provide consumers with perhaps 2-4 varying product page user experiences to match what they will be looking for, to allow for different amounts of product data, both textual and visual, whilst ensuring the overall user experience remains consistent.

Author's avatar

By Dave Chaffey

Digital strategist Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of online marketing training platform and publisher Smart Insights. Dave is editor of the 100+ templates, ebooks and courses in the digital marketing resource library created by our team of 25+ digital marketing experts. Our resources are used by our Premium members in more than 100 countries to Plan, Manage and Optimize their digital marketing. Free members can access our free sample templates here. Dave is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant who is author of 5 bestselling books on digital marketing including Digital Marketing Excellence and Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice. My personal site, DaveChaffey.com, lists my latest Digital marketing and E-commerce books and support materials including a digital marketing glossary. In 2004 he was recognised by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have helped shape the future of marketing. Please connect on LinkedIn to receive updates or ask me a question.

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