Needs-Based Browsing

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Aug 21, 2002

Needs-based search was the subject of my last column. The natural evolution of a discussion about needs-based design is to talk about the browsing experience. A lot of people have talked about variants of this idea, but given the number of terrible sites out there (almost all of them), the message clearly hasn’t gotten through. has a great home page. Instead of wasting real estate on merchandising that’s not interesting to most people, it uses its home page to guide users into the section of the site that will be most helpful in filling their needs. The home page uses the main content area to ask how old your child is. Based on that first click, you’re whisked to product areas geared toward your child.

This is in stark contrast to sites that organize products by catalog numbers or internal taxonomies. Other sites would put all board games, for instance, in the same category. In fact, doesn’t even have a “Board Games” category. I found Monopoly through a search but no way to browse for it. A parent would have to sift through plenty of products and figure out individually which are intended for children of a specific age.

By organizing products by categorizations most useful to visitors (themes such as “Pretend Play” or “Construction”), helps customers get to products faster and makes its site seem more personalized than it actually is. As an aside, if you do want to register at, it’s easy. One optional checkbox that really amuses me says, “My child is talented and gifted.” Who doesn’t check this box? People who think their kids are stupid?

A while ago, I submitted a bunch of ideas for personalizing a small property rental company in Italy. Using needs-based design was key to the strategy. I did this because (compared to the other ideas I could have recommended) needs-based design is more cost effective and lends an air of personalization to your site without investing money in all the fancy technology traditionally linked with personalization projects.

The Missing Link

Take a good, hard look at your navigation. Most companies organize their sites by product line or service type. That’s fine if your users understand everything about the organization of your site. But I’ll bet you a lot of money they don’t. Try the following experiment:

  1. Pick a page on your site with a lot of navigation on it (secondary or tertiary navigation, not just the main navigation bar of your site).
  2. In the content area of the page, put a little box. We’ll call this the “needs-based box.”
  3. In the needs-based box, put short statements or questions that anticipate what most likely brought the user to that page. On the “About Us” page, for example, the box might list items that can be found in that area of the Web site, such as, “How much can I outsource?” and “Help me balance my checkbook!”
  4. Next, try to imagine what the user was trying, but failed, to do that led him to the current page instead of the correct page. In the needs-based box, add items that are not in that page’s category. Continuing with our example, you might put, “What is your phone number?” and “Do you operate overseas, too?” (In our example, those items were actually in the “Contact Us” area, not the “About Us” area.)
  5. Put five or six links in the “needs-based box.”
  6. Watch your traffic patterns for two weeks.

I’ll bet you more people follow the links in that box than links in your navigation, even if the box’s links go to the same place as the navigation links.

Very important to note is these questions and statements are not just the site’s categories and labels turned into sentences. In fact, that is to be avoided. Making “About Us” into “I want to know more about you” doesn’t work. You must figure out the user’s need. “About Us” might instead turn into “I need to talk to a human” and “Are we hiring?”

What pages should you try this technique on? Look at your Web analysis software to find the most common “exit” pages. These are the pages people view right before they lose interest and leave your site. Try to figure out what people might have wanted to do on those pages they were unable to. Put up a needs-based box, then watch your site traffic. If done correctly, those pages will stop appearing on the list of your highest exit pages.

Let me know how you make out. I’ll write a follow-up with your success stories in my newsletter.

Until next time…


Reprinted from ClickZ.

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