Photo of people trying to navigate a maze

How to categorise your resources for the web to aid navigation

Publishing a catalogue of research findings or deliverables online can really make an impact… as long as you categorise it well. Here are our 7 top tips to make your search facility more user-friendly

  • Are you trying to collate research documents on your website?
  • Do you have public deliverables that you’re required to publish online?
  • Have you completed your project and would like to catalogue relevant information, like evidence of your findings or guidance recommendations?
  • Do you struggle to get non-academics to engage with your research? 
  • Are you involved in a large project that is generating lots of information that you would like others to access easily in a directory of resources, but you’re not sure how to index or organise it? 

It can be overwhelming to be presented with a huge list of resources, and people don’t always have the patience to scroll down to look for the content they want. So categorisation can help them get to where they need to go, by grouping together relevant content that may also be of interest.

Web applications can provide more possibilities for navigation than a printed document with a contents and index page. It is, however, important to give some thought to the structure. Ideally, start this process before you start gathering the information, and certainly before you start to put the website together.

  1. Make sure the person updating the website has the relevant expertise to categorise your resources
  2. It’s all about structure – use a hierarchy
  3. Be prepared to compromise technical accuracy
  4. Avoid categories which are too narrow
  5. Avoid categories which are too broad
  6. Don’t let contributors choose their own categories
  7. The best way to present your categories

Make sure the person updating the website has the relevant expertise to categorise your resources

It’s important to consider who will be updating the website in the long term. If that person is a very capable admin colleague or even web designer, they may not have the expertise in your field to be able to use the categorisation structure you’ve set up. It’s great to be ambitious about how you want your information to be searched, but bear in mind the overhead that categorising it properly produces. Make sure you have the resources to do this for as long as content needs adding to the site.

For example, imagine you have a list of species of whales and want them to be categorised by their preferred diet. You either need to provide the website administrator with that information for each species, or they need to be able to discern that information themselves. That may require in-depth knowledge of the subject.

So when setting up categories, it’s important to think of the sustainability of the website’s structure, when it comes to how it’s going to be updated. If the website administrator isn’t able to categorise items when adding them to the site, they may just them blank. This means the search query won’t work, and makes for a very frustrating search experience for the user.

Avoid empty categories with no search results: message saying 'Sorry, we can't find any results for this query'

What we’re trying to avoid:

Search queries by category that are redundant because the search results always come up empty.

It’s all about structure – use a hierarchy

Using a hierarchy with categories and sub-categories is a helpful strategy for your users, and when search engines like Google are indexing your site, they will appreciate the logical structure too.

If you have 2 separate categories, ‘Saltwater fish’ and ‘Freshwater fish’, they will be unrelated and the user will have to look at both categories to see all the information. But if they are organised into an overarching ‘Fish’ category with ‘Saltwater fish’ and ‘Freshwater fish’ sub-categories, the user can either look at the individual subcategories, or the main ‘Fish’ category to see everything. The ‘Fish’ category will automatically display items in any of the sub-categories, so the hierarchy makes the administrator’s life easier too.

Best not to make too many levels of sub-category though (sub-categories of sub-categories of sub-categories), as this can complicate navigation. If you can get away with just the one level of sub-category in a category, that strikes a good balance.

Avoid related categories not linked to each other - use main category with nested sub-categories

What we’re trying to avoid:

Related categories which are not linked to each other

Be prepared to compromise technical accuracy

We’re not saying accuracy isn’t important, but categories which are too similar are not useful in narrowing down the search. So when defining categories, it’s useful to think of how your audience might understand the data. They may not have your in-depth knowledge to find the right search term.

For example, you may be tempted to keep ‘Humpback whale’ and ‘Baleen whale’ as two separate categories, as you know that a humpback whale is a species of baleen whale, not a strict synonym.

But as the goal is to aid navigation, you may decide that your categories should be merged into one. One of the terms fits a broad enough definition for the general user to be able to find the information they’re looking for.

Focus on ease of navigation not semantics - combine similar categories

What we’re trying to avoid:

Getting too hung up about semantics with category names, and focus on aiding your audience to navigate

Road sign: road narrows on both sides
Categories which are too narrow don’t help

Avoid categories which are too narrow

We’re categorising the information to allow it to be grouped easily into logical sections. So if there are so many categories that some of them have only one or two items in, then that defies the purpose of categorising the material. You then can end up with a huge, unwieldy drop-down list or clump of categories that are difficult to scroll through.

Use broad category areas, subdivided into sub-categories which still envelop a broad range of items. Your tags or keywords can then join up items in different categories which have shared attributes.

Avoid categories which are too narrow - with only 1 search result

What we’re trying to avoid:

Categories that are so detailed that they don’t serve their purpose, which is to group broadly similar items together

Avoid categories which are too broad

Similarly, categories that are too vague are not helpful, if when you select them, all or most of the resources are displayed. For example, in a directory of resources about fish, having ‘Fish’ as a category would not narrow down the results for the user.

It’s also tempting to categorise an item in too many categories. If most items appear in most categories, this won’t help the user narrow down their search, as every query by category will return a similar set of results.

Avoid categories which are too broad - with thousands of search results

What we’re trying to avoid:

Categories which show so many results that they don’t help the user narrow down their search

Photo of lots of hands piled on top of each other
Many hands don’t always make light work

Don’t use contributors’ categories without editing them

If you are collating material from colleagues, it may be tempting to ask them to categorise their content, then simply collate the category list into an index. However, if your colleagues use different terminology for the same thing, you can end up with many similar categories which are too narrow and therefore not useful. Two contributors may assign categories which your audience might understand as being the same, and would benefit from being merged – e.g. ‘plastic pollution’ and ‘plastic waste’.

Also look for antonyms which are two sides of the same coin – for example, ‘whale distress’ and ‘whale wellbeing’. Both describe a level of whale wellbeing and probably belong together.

Instead, decide your structure in advance based on what you know about the material. Start with up to a dozen categories, with up to 3 or 4 sub-categories in each, and ask your colleagues to categorise using that list. Give them a limit of how many categories they can choose for each item, e.g. up to 3.

You can also allow them to suggest new categories (again, give them a limit). If they come up with a good idea, you can see if any of the other material would fit those categories too.

There’s no right answer to categorising your information. But if one person or a co-ordinated team is overseeing the process, then the same logic will apply throughout.

Don't use contributors' categories without editing them - avoid duplicates

What we’re trying to avoid:

Lots of synonym and antonym categories which should be merged into one

The best way to present your categories

There are lots of different ways of allowing a user to choose a category.

Firstly, always present a list of categories in alphabetical order, unless there’s a logical reason otherwise. The key word in the category should come first, as this will determine where it appears in the alphabetical list. Don’t start the category with ‘The’, ‘A’ etc.

Secondly, consider whether the user needs to be able to choose more than one category at once. If not, a simple dropdown list or list of ‘radio buttons’ may be appropriate.

If they do need to choose more than one category, a multiple option dropdown list or a list of checkboxes might work better.

And if you have a lot of categories, you can also look into the possibility of an auto-complete box. When the user types in a few letters into the input box, the matches are automatically shown so the user can choose from them, rather than have to sift through the whole list.

Think about presentation of long lists of categories - autocomplete boxes rather than very long lists of categories

What we’re trying to avoid:

Users giving up when trying to wade through a list of categories, or getting frustrated if they’re not allowed to select more than one

We’re here to help

This is a taster of some of the decisions that you need to make when presenting your directory of resources, research documents, or catalogue of evidence of findings. It’s especially important to put some thought into these aspects if you want to increase your engagement with non-academics.

We’ve used our experience of presenting complex information logically to create this post, but can you think of other helpful tips? Let us know in the comments.

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