Redirecting the web chi, or improving's navigational structure

As part of the rethink, we're adjusting the site's feng shui.

According to Wikipedia, feng shui "is a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing the human existence with the surrounding environment. The feng shui practice discusses architecture in metaphoric terms of 'invisible forces' that bind the universe, earth, and man together, known as qi, chi, or energy.

In website terms, this means harmonizing the site's navigational structure with what people need to accomplish on the site, and binding the site together with the invisible force of <a href>.


First, we did a lot of user research - studying data from Google Analytics, combing through feedback we received from users, and conducting 15 card sorting exercises with small groups of students, staff and faculty. We also reviewed the 2013 report on navigation trends in higher ed from EduStyle. From there, the UX/Design team at Four Kitchens and I developed a series of content maps centered around user goals. After all that, we started to develop a new information architecture (or navigation scheme) for the site. Whew. It's been busy.

Last week, we were ready to test out what we came up with. Using a tool called Treejack, we asked users to complete a series of typical tasks on the website by drilling down through a series of menus. We pushed out two tests - one with tasks geared toward students and prospective students, and one geared toward staff and faculty.

Response to the survey was great - 217 people completed the student version, and 115 completed the employee study.

The Student Task Results

On the student test, we saw a 75 percent or higher success rates for five of the nine tasks. Finding a degree program, finding a tutor, navigating to Monterey without a car, checking out fraternities and sororities, and visiting campus with a parent all seemed easy enough for most users.

The user's didn't fare as well with determining when spring break would be (62% success) or reserving a group study room (69% success). While not totally dismal, these lower success rates mean we'll be reviewing keywords and navigation labels, as well as carefully looking at the areas where people hunted for this information, couldn't find it, and had to backtrack. This will guide us on where to cross-link or reuse content in ways we hadn't anticipated.

The navigation didn't work out so well on two tasks. First, finding information about transferring credits to CSUMB had only 50 percent success. Users nominated a lot of different areas to find this information, and a significant segment thought this information would be part of the transfer application.

Pietree showing results of transferring credits task

I see a couple of issues here. First, maybe this task was worded in a way that was difficult to interpret. But more importantly, I see that there are a lot of places a reasonable person might look for this kind of information all over the site. They'd find bits and pieces in Admissions, in Advising, in Catalog. But do we have a single, highly useful area that explains it all to a transfer student? I'm not so sure. In the future, I think it'd be great to get a team of folks from all these respective areas together to envision what that content might look like, and strategize how and where to create a realistic hub for transfer information.

The second task that had a very low success rate was "Imagine you have to pay your tuition for next semester. Where would you find out how much you owe?" This one only had a 30 percent success rate. Ouch.

But on closer inspection, I don't think this is as bad as it seems. 

Pietree showing results of tuition finding task

A lot of people went from "Costs and aid" right into "Making payments." Again, a very reasonable place to complete this task. We told you to imagine you have to pay and of course you'd see how much you owe when you go to make a payment. Duh. But I didn't flag that as a successful outcome. My bad. Given this, I'm going to say that we're okay on this one, really. But we'll also take care to make sure the navigation in this section is as clear as can be, and likely do some repeat testing down the road to verify.

Staff & Faculty Task Results

Six of the ten employee tasks met our threshold of 75 percent or higher success. Filling out at RAT, making a charitable gift, resetting your OtterID password, sending a visitor directions to campus, buying tickets to a performance on campus, and reviewing dental plans all had excellent rates of success. The dental plan task was especially strong, with 93 percent success and 96 percent of users going straight there without any backtracking. Not sure if this implies university staff have excellent dental hygiene or if it means we suffer frequent toothaches that require treatment. I'll let you be the judge.

Tasks that came close but didn't quite meet the threshold were enrollment numbers (73%), replacing a lost OtterCard (60%), and checking gym hours (58%). 

On the enrollment numbers task, Admissions, Academics and Campus Life all showed traffic. Again, reasonable places to expect this info, and I believe it would be easy enough to solve this problem by reusing content from the About section that covers key student demographics.

People seemed pretty baffled with replacing their OtterCard. They were clicking all over.

Pietree showing results of replacing OtterCard task

This one is a real challenge and to be honest, I'm not sure what the best solution would be. Campus Life does seem like a good potential fit, and amen to the three people who nominated Search. But until we all wrap our heads around this one, keep your OtterCard in a safe place.

For gym hours, a large group identified Athletics as the source for this information, and we've already been in touch with Athletic Director Kirby Garry and his team to make sure this content is findable on

Finally, our lowest performing task was "You are a finalist for a job as a professor in the math department. You want to check out the bios of the other math professors who work at CSUMB." This task had just a 50 percent success rate. 

Pietree showing results of math faculty bio task

For this task, again we see a significant segment nominating "About the faculty," an answer we hadn't anticipated or flagged as correct, yet makes a lot of sense. The faculty section is another area that I think could use more discussion and planning with stakeholders, and I'll be working to set up those conversations in the weeks ahead. 


We're very pleased with the results of this testing - we were able to verify that many of our navigational paths work well for users, and we gained meaningful insight on how to approach areas that aren't as clear or easy to use. 

In addition, we found Treejack to be an excellent tool - easy to set up the tests, easy for our test participants to understand, and the data and visualizations made analyzing the results a delight. We're looking forward to using it again to test individual department sites and other user populations such as alumni.

Thanks to those who participated in the study, we're well on our way a site with excellent feng shui.


  1. This is fascinating Liz. I joined this blog but I'm not sure how to subscribe to the updates. Is there a way to get "push" notifications about updates made?


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