The design phase: going wide


In the design phase of a project, it’s a mistake to create just a single new site tree.

Testing several alternatives at once

It’s too early to finalize our thinking; we probably haven’t done enough research and we haven’t actually tested our idea with users. If it doesn’t work out, what do we do – start over? If we only create (and test) a single site tree, we’re taking a big (and unnecessary) risk.

The smart thing to do here is “go wide” – that is, generate several different site trees to exercise our various ideas, then pick the 2 or 3 most promising trees to test against each other.


This may seem like a lot of extra work, but it’s not. It turns out that trying to settle on a single tree at this stage is usually very difficult. There are different groupings to try, different terms to try, and (if we’re working with a team) diverging ideas from other members. We’ve found it easier to generate several trees that incorporate these inputs than it is to try hacking and slashing them all in a single structure.

By “going wide”, we raise our chances of hitting on the best design. We start with several candidate trees, then use a reliable method (tree testing) to choose the best one.

For more on going wide in UX design, see Jared Spool's short article on exploring multiple variations.


Data for the CEO

Consider also that the “other members” that we get input from might include the CEO. And (trust us), if we need to shoot down their out-of-left-field idea, it’s much easier to do that with objective data from testing than just our personal opinions.  (smile)


Guarding against genius design

Perhaps most importantly, testing lots of ideas early on avoids the peril of genius design. By that, we mean designers who believe they are talented, and tend to believe that all their ideas are good ones.

If we have a “genius” designer on the project, we must tread very carefully. Because when a designer falls in love with a single idea early on, it’s really hard for them to get away from it.


Learning from other industries

Fixing on a single idea too early is not a new problem. Other industries encountered this (and solved it) years ago.

Consider traditional graphic design and advertising. In both professions, the classic approach is to go wide in the early conceptual phase:

  • Brainstorm dozens of ideas

  • Explore 5-10 in more detail

  • Pitch the top 3 to the client

It brings to mind the advertising person who said that if they went away and worked and then came back with a single idea to pitch, they would be fired on the spot.


Going wide – an example

For an example of testing alternative ideas, let's look at Meridian Energy, a renewable-power company that needed to redesign its site tree.

When they ran an open card sort with their users, the results suggested that the current top-level headings didn’t match their mental model.



So they brainstormed a bunch of ideas, and decided that two of them were worth testing. They set up three tree tests - the two ideas plus the current site.

When the results came back a week later, the current tree perform poorly (as they expected). But so did the two new ones:


Obviously, they were not happy about this. Time to start over, right?

Well, not really. When they dug deeper into the results, they found patterns in both trees that performed very well. The problem was that there were other patterns and potholes that sabotaged the overall scores.

So, in round 2, they created a third tree that was a hybrid of the best of the earlier designs. And the third tree proved to be the charm:



Next: The design phase: going deep