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Usability Studies 101: Making Cookies

Usability Studies 101: Making Cookies Joseph Carrabis

This column is the third in a series of four specifically on the topic of Visitor Designed Navigation.

Visitor Designed Navigation makes use of visitor-based information to create recognizable, high interest navigation paths for visitors to your website. We started this discussion by investigating weblog data in "What Comes Next?", then showed an alternative method of using weblog data for information-rich sites in "MIPS are Next". Both of the methods described in these previous columns are excellent at giving this visitor an idea of what other visitors found interesting.

We're going to continue the discussion of Visitor Designed Navigation, and this time we're going to be visitor specific. The technique described here has proven useful on information-rich sites and can be a great boon to all other sites as well.

Visitor Specific Navigation

Here's a scenario that might seem familiar.

A visitor comes to a site based on a co-worker's or friend's suggestion. Maybe the pointer came via an email or thread. For whatever reason, they navigate the site beyond the specific page that was suggested to them. They find the site interesting, the information useful. So useful, in fact, that they bookmark a page.

Everyone who maintains or owns a website delights when the above scenario plays out.

Here's the problem on information-rich sites, though: people tend to read through websites quickly. Information-rich (and other) sites put lots of ideas into visitors' heads, some of which don't germinate until sometime later. The visitor bookmarks the current page, not the page that got them thinking.

At a later date, they click on the bookmark. It takes them to the page they were looking at when the idea germinated, not the page that planted the seed. In an information-rich site, the crops are planted close together. But where was that seed planted? Which row in which field were they walking (or "which part of which page were they visiting")?

People are unique. Mass-marketing and much of ecommerce is based on the concept that this person is just as unique as that person, which translates into "one size fits all," That just isn't true in the increasingly sophisticated visitor-space of behavioral mechanics and persuasive analytics. More and more often, having material that is unique to the individual interacting with it is paramount to keeping individuals engaged and responsive to the messages we want to give them.

Now imagine the person who bookmarked an incorrect page during their last visit desperately working to recreate that magic chain of events that led to their previous insight, unable to do so and becoming increasingly frustrated.

Then, poof! -- a miracle happens. The miracle is Visitor Specific Navigation embodied in a little graphic with a title such as "NavTool" or "Guide" or something equally interesting. The visitor clicks on this little graphic with the interesting title, and it opens a list of the pages they navigated during their last visit in the order they visited them.


Breadcrumbs are internet lingo for where a page is on a site in reference to other pages on a site. We've used the concept of breadcrumbs in the internet lingo sense before but called them "Landmarks". The difference between Landmarks and what I call breadcrumbs is contained in the third paragraph of the Usability First reference above. To me, breadcrumbs are the actual path, not the implied or perfected path, and the reason for the difference is critical when dealing with visitor and user psychology.

Breadcrumbs (in my use of the term) are what psycho- and neurolinguists call "anchors." They tie an external event to an internal state. The external event is what the person is viewing or reading or navigating. The internal state is the "a-ha!" The goal of breadcrumbs is to allow the individual to recreate the external event or events that lead to the internal a-ha! so that they can experience it again (and again and again).

There are few things as gratifying as finding that lost sock, lost key or good idea you had while navigating some site but have since lost and forgotten. An implied or perfected path (the traditional use of "breadcrumbs") doesn't allow the individual to recreate his or her a-ha.

That inability can lead to more frustration, more aggravation ("I know I saw it here somewhere, gosh darn it!") and more lost business than most website owners can imagine.

Creating breadcrumbs

Creating breadcrumbs and using them for Visitor Specific Navigation is as easy as opening up a spreadsheet, and it involves making use of the concise descriptions of web pages suggested in Landmarks Ahead?.

Consider the following table as an example:

URL Concise Breadcrumb
www.somesite.com (Homepage)
Offering Overview
www.somesite.com/pageA1.htm Product Description PD
www.somesite.com/pageB3.htm Technology Overview TO
www.somesite.com/pageF2.htm Pricing and Availability PA

This table should have an entry for every page in your site, regardless of how obscure or seldom used.

Let's assume someone navigated the above site in the order given and achieved an a-ha! Their Visitor Specific Navigation -- their breadcrumbs -- would be "OOPDTOPA".

Making cookies from breadcrumbs

As visitors navigate your site, their breadcrumbs are collected in a persistent cookie stored on their browser. (I'll leave the whole issue of visitors deleting cookies for later, preferably when the brouhaha has died down and people realize it wasn't an issue in the first place.)

Visitors returning to your site -- regardless of where they enter your site -- have that little guide icon or graphic that recreates their previous navigation path by reading their breadcrumbs, going through a lookup table and making that previous navigation possible. This previous navigation appears as a hierarchical list of pages visited by concise description.

In other words, visitors see something like "Offering Overview --> Product Description -- > Technology Overview -- > Pricing and Availability" and not "OOPDTOPA" or "Home -- > PageA1 Title -- > PageB3 Title -- >  PageF2 Title."

This new navigation for returning visitors is also gathered and either writes over the existing cookie or is appended to it as an "nth" entry. New visitors have their current navigation path stored so that they, too, can recreate their navigation path more easily than using the back button or some other more cumbersome navigation device.

This method works best on information-rich sites, but, done properly, it is useful on all sites. Many times, simply seeing the breadcrumbs will trigger memory, hence the a-ha!, hence business.

And that's what visitor satisfaction and usability is all about.

The next column will complete this Visitor-Designed Navigation series by describing ways to create a site search tool based on what people think they found.

Happy Holidays!

Joseph Carrabis has been everything from butcher to truck driver to Senior Knowledge Architect to Chief Research Scientist. His 22 books and 225 articles have ranged among cultural anthropology, mathematics, information mechanics, language acquisition, neurolinguistics, psychodynamics and psychosocial modeling -- and other eclectic topics. His knowledge and data designs have been used by Caltech, Citibank, DOD, IBM, NASA, Owens-Corning and Smith-Barney among others. Carrabis is CRO and Founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global, and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He is also inventor and developer of Evolution Technology. You can download sections of Carrabis' next book, "Reading Virtual Minds," at www.hungrypeasant.com.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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