What is tree testing and how can it improve your site’s usability?

By UserTesting | May 3, 2023
How tree testing can improve your site

In this comprehensive guide to tree testing we’ll be answering the following questions:

  • What is tree testing?
  • What are the benefits?
  • How do I run my own tree testing?

What is tree testing?

Tree testing is a research method for assessing findability within the hierarchy of a website or app. In tree testing, a text-only version of the site’s hierarchy is laid out in front of test participants, who are asked to highlight a category or page within that structure where they would expect to find a particular item or piece of content.

How is tree testing different from card sorting?

Tree testing is sometimes known as reverse card sorting. In card sorting, test participants are presented with a list of items (for example, all the products in an online supermarket) and asked to group them in a way that makes sense to them.

This puts the onus on the test participants to create their own categories and group items within those categories as they see fit. Tree testing flips this by instead asking testers to work with an existing set of categories and highlight where they believe an item is most likely to be located.

When should you use tree testing vs card sorting? Card sorting would logically take place before a tree test. In fact, tree testing is a good way to validate the results from your card sorting exercises.

Example of a tree test

During a tree test, you’ll set a number of tasks for your participant to complete. As an example, here are the results of a test we ran for the e-commerce platform Shopify.

To test the navigation of Shopify, we asked our participants to click where they expect to learn more about ‘enterprise level selling solutions’. Here’s how they did:

The correct option is Enterprise, which can be found underneath Ways to Sell. 93% of participants opened Ways to Sell, with 60% correctly selecting Enterprise afterwards. Another 24% of users clicked on other topics underneath Ways to Sell, with 10% clicking on Pricing.

Why ‘tree’?

The structure of a website looks a bit like a tree. There’s a hierarchy of categories and subcategories, all of which branch out from the homepage, which acts as the main tree trunk.

What are the benefits of tree testing?

Tree testing helps identify navigation issues with your site or app. You can analyze where a user would expect to find the information they’re looking for, and you can make improvements to your site based on this behavior.

Tree testing will help you validate the effectiveness of your site’s organization, structuring and labelling. While open card sorting is a good technique, it doesn’t yield the final site structure. This is where tree testing comes in.

Unlike other information architecture tests, tree testing presents participants with realistic task scenarios, so you may learn more about real-world behavior.

Tree testing is relatively quick, so it’s easier to test variations of a site structure and compare the results. This can also help you provide quantitative results, e.g. Version A had a 47% success rate, compared to Version B’s 22%.

And much like with card sorting, the ultimate benefit is that you’ll be improving your navigation by observing how real users navigate your site rather than just going on assumption.

What are the disadvantages of tree testing?

Donna Spencer, the information architect responsible for the invention of tree testing, points out that the method tests the top-down organization of a site and the labelling of its topics. Tree testing therefore concentrates solely on your site structure, so you won’t get any feedback on any other areas of navigation or learn how users may use a blend of functionality on your website.

However, if you supplement tree testing with other user research methods, such as basic usability testing or click testing, you can build up a clearer picture of any issues or opportunities with the design and structure of your site.

How do I run tree testing?

Tree testing is typically done remotely, with users on their own computers, in their own environment, completely unmoderated. There are a few different online tools that can help you run unmoderated tree testing, including of course *cough cough* UserZoom. Here’s our own promo video:

Tree Test Results Overview

If you want to hear more qualitative insight (i.e. a running commentary on why a user is making the decisions they are making) you could organize a moderated session. But these would have to be one-to-one, and you may find your own resources will limit how many you can run.

Unlike standard user testing, tree testing takes place on a simplified text version of your site that removes everything except the navigable structure of categories and subcategories. This helps keep visual distractions to a minimum and any other methods of navigation (search, breadcrumbs) won’t affect the user’s behavior or results.

Your tree should be a complete list of all your main content categories and their subcategories. Even if you’re interested in only testing a specific section of the menu, you shouldn’t exclude the other categories as this assumes that users will know which section to go to.

We recommend providing a tree that is 3, 4 or 5 levels deep and allows your users to be able to go down to the lowest level of subcategories – with each subcategory providing a full list of all options in that area — just like your actual live website.

Tree testing shouldn’t take longer than 15-20 minutes, and you shouldn’t ask for the user to complete more than 10 tasks. Any more and fatigue/boredom will likely set in, as well as familiarity with the site structure. Results may become skewed as users remember where they’ve seen things before.

We recommend 50 participants for a typical tree test study. This number will give you the flexibility to exclude participants while maintaining reliable results. And when it comes to tasks, make sure yours are clear, specific, and representative of the tasks that actual users will do on the real site.

What should I look for in tree testing results?

Tree testing results tend to be easier to analyze than card sorting results, mainly because of the focus on quantitive data.

The data from a tree test visualizes the various paths that users take to get to specific information or content.

This is taken from our own Tree Test Results section, and you can see where both successful and unsuccessful participants clicked during the test.

tree testing results

And here’s an alternative visualization where you can see an overview of all the results for the tasks you’ve set.

Other measurements you might want to look for could include:

  • Directness: the percentage of users completing the task without hesitation and getting the correct answer first time
  • Success: the percentage of users that completed the task vs. failed attempts
  • Time: the time it took users to complete a task

You can also look at number of attempts to complete a task, as this can indicate where items are difficult to find.

These results should help you decide whether any problems with your structure relate to the organization of your content or its labelling.

But again, if some of this data isn’t providing enough helpful insight, you can always carry out some moderated tree tests and ask participants their reasonings in the moment.

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About the author(s)

With UserTesting’s on-demand platform, you uncover ‘the why’ behind customer interactions. In just a few hours, you can capture the critical human insights you need to confidently deliver what your customers want and expect.