How multivariate "smart browsing" can dramatically enhance the user experience.
I've commented in a previous post about the conceptual tug of war between search and browse on the Web.
Obviously, they both have their place. What I've been noticing lately is that differences in how a site lets you browse through information can have a dramatic impact on the user experience.
Let's take a couple of sites as an example.
Yes, it's true that these aren't university Web sites, and at Chico State, booze is a sensitive subject. But in my other life, I'm a wine columnist, so I spend a lot of time shopping for (but not necessarily buying) wine.
Let's say that you had a bottle of 2002 Rodney Strong Symmetry and want to buy another. On both sites, you can get to it pretty quickly using the search box (though admittedly, the search function at wine.com is much, much better).
But what if you're looking for a 90+ point Napa Cabernet Sauvignon for under $40?
That sort of multi-variate search can be very difficult to handle via a search box. It's very easy to end up with more noise than signal in the search results. A high functioning browse structure ("smart browsing") can be a better way to go. Let's see how the sites handle it...
First of all, the Corporate Wine site doesn't show wine ratings, so right off the bat you're at a disadvantage. Second, the only thing they let you browse by is region - "California". Once there, you have to slog through 889 wines. At this point, I've already given up.
On the other hand, the wine.com site lets you refine your browsing criteria on the fly by price, type, region and rating. And the type and region filters have multiple levels, so once you select California, you can further refine your browse to only Napa Valley.
In just six clicks, I've narrowed my browse down to Napa Valley Cabs between $20-$40, and sorted them with top rated wines at the top.
I really like the ability to refine my browsing criteria on the fly, and I think wine.com does just about the best job of this of any wine Web site (though Vinfolio is just as good - and has better wines). I only wish that they had a decent wine selection to make it worth visiting their site. They should also add vintage to the list of variables that you can use to refine your browse.
OK, so how does this apply to university Web sites? I'm really not sure. This approach obviously has serious advantages when doing a multi-variate browse (e.g., price, type, region, rating, vintage), but probably has little, if any, advantage on a single-variate browse.
It might have some value where students are trying to browse through program listings. Let's say you're looking for Master's programs in the College of Engineering... in that case, maybe it would be helpful, but I'm not sure that students would be randomly looking for Master's programs.
Regardless, it's worth giving consideration to exactly how browsing your site works, and its worth realizing that browsing can depend on more than just your information architecture. For me, I'm going to stick this in the back of my mind, so that when a situation that would benefit from this approach appears, I'll be able to go, "Ah ha!"