Brand-Centric vs. User-Centric Navigation

  |  October 7, 2005   |  Comments

Shoppers don't know -- or care -- how your company is organized internally.

Sometimes we're so close to our own products and brands we forget how they're viewed by the outside world. This often affects on how we organize our Web sites, and how we expect our users to navigate them. Unfortunately, a poorly organized Web site, or one organized with the wrong perspective, can be disastrous to the ROI (return on investment). If people can't navigate, they can't find products. If they can't find products, they can't buy them.

Let's look at a common navigation mistake that most definitely affects the bottom line: Brand-Centric vs. User-Centric Navigation.

No offense to your brands, but…

One undeniable fact: companies love their brands and product lines. Companies with multiple brands (such as Hasbro or Nabisco) are divided organizationally by those brands. Companies with one brand (such as Staples or IKEA) are usually organized by some other differentiator, such as "electronics" or "kitchenware." Usually, these divisions are directly translated on the company's Web site and in their stores. Unfortunately, users don't always think about brand or product line first. And they definitely don't know (or care) how your company is organized internally.

One site we reviewed in the usability panel at in Las Vegas is Duckhorn Wine Company. I give them a lot of credit for subjecting their site to our critiques. One of the site's major problems is its navigational structure. It's brand-centric in a way that cripples its usability.

One has to imagine users will go to to find out about a wine they had for dinner, or because someone said a wine was good. If you're like me, you keep the labels from bottles of wine you've tried, or perhaps you write down the name. Or maybe you just remember it was a red wine and there was a picture of a duck on the label. The only navigation on the site, however, is by winery (brand). You can choose the following options: Duckhorn Vineyards, Decoy, Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration.

I'm lost. All I know is the type of wine I had. Where can I choose "Chardonnay" or "Shiraz"? Furthermore, once you choose a brand, you're asked to choose a vintage (year). There's no indication what kind of wine we're looking at. It's not until you've chosen both the brand and the vintage that you see a description of the wine. Somewhere in the middle of the description it says (for example) "Pinot Noir."

One can easily imagine additional navigation schemes. Most obvious is a simple list of wine types. That's a more natural starting point. Other navigation schemes would allow me to search visually, based on the label I saved, a description of taste, or even by the type of food I'll serve., which is a user-centric site (because it doesn't represent one brand or winery), allows the user several ways to navigate, such as: type, winery, region and price. It has a brand-centric search also, but that's only one of several options.

From Wine to Toys and Furniture

Let's look at another example with a line of more familiar products (and brands). Hasbro has many different brands, including Monopoly, Milton Bradley and Scrabble. It's essential include a list of their brands, along with links to the individual brand Web sites. But not everyone coming to cares about their brands. Some people (me, for instance) just want to find out what toys are appropriate for my 2-year-old niece.

There's no apparent way (on the homepage) to view products in this manner. In fairness, Hasbro does include this functionality deeper in the site. If you go to Product Search" you can narrow the product selection by age, category, brand or even gender. This is terrific functionality. I just wish it had been obvious on the homepage. The homepage practically begs the user to search by brand; it's a visual mess, and the only navigation I immediately see is "All Brands" and "All Sites." As sites are aligned by brand, these links have essentially the same functionality. The button for product search, while technically part of the primary navigation, is visually obscured by poor design.

We've talked primarily about companies with multiple brands. One-brand companies have similar issues. If their navigation scheme is simply based on product lines or product types, they'll miss a lot of cross-selling opportunities.

Furniture stores get this. Stores like IKEA go out of their way to be user-centric. While you can certainly go to the rug department and look at all the rugs, you can also walk into a fully-furnished living room or bedroom. This user-centric organization of products is informed by how we use the products, not just what kind of products we need. It affords cross-sell opportunities that aren't possible if the products are in separate departments.

Online furniture stores are moving in that direction. Many, like, show their furniture only in rooms, and no longer use photography that isolates the furniture. Cross-sells on the product pages include all the other items in the room.

Have Both

Categorizing by brand or product line is fine, so long as it's only one option. In fact, some users only want to shop this way, so having it is essential. But others won't. For them, you need categorization that speaks to their needs and their perspective. If you don't, they'll get frustrated and go to another site that understands their needs better.

That can't be good for the bottom line.

Until next time…


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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