The problem lies in the difference between how Web designers think and how the frustrated Internet user thinks, said Kansas State University psychologist Keith Jones.
"Most of the existing literature assumes that people form a spatial mental model of the Web site as they explore it, but people don't remember Web sites the way Web designers think about it," Jones said. Jones recently finished a study in which participants searched through a Web site and then were asked to diagram how the Web site was organized. The resulting drawings were mostly inaccurate. Rather than recalling the actual Web pages, people tended to group similar bits of information.
"We had people drawing Web pages on their diagrams that didn't even exist," Jones said. "People don't remember individual pages as much as they remember categories. In a university setting, for example, people might think of undergraduate programs versus graduate programs. But really, information on undergraduate programs may be spread across different pages in different areas, and the same goes for graduate programs."
That arrangement makes Web sites difficult to use, Jones said. Business Web sites also are often confusing. An Internet searcher looking for information on an older product will probably look for it under the "products" Web page of a corporate Web site. But that page may only list current products, while those that are out of production might be mentioned under the "service" Web page, Jones said. The result is potential customers who rip their hair out in a fruitless search.
"You see this a lot with corporate sites. It's organized in the way the CEO thinks about the company, not how the customers think about the company. Our research shows that is going to be problematic, because the only person who can really find information on that Web site is the CEO," Jones said.
Some Web sites use "arrows" that users click on to navigate through Web pages like a car through city streets. Jones said designers might be better off organizing the information into categories that are obvious to the user.
"We argue that designers need to focus on how users mentally organize the information that is displayed. People have a certain idea of how certain pieces of information are organized. You have to present the Web site information in a way that is consistent with how people think about how those things are grouped together," Jones said.
The study has been accepted for publication by the journal Interacting with Computers.