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A – Z indexes seem to be a hot topic at the moment with experts like Jakob Nielsen stating Alphabetical Sorting Must Die.
The A – Z gets a bad press as it is perceived as a sign of poor information architecture and experts suggest investment would be better placed in fixing why users can’t find things on your site, rather than copping out and creating an index.
However, in an imperfect world where intranet users are disillusioned with search and navigation structure is not always user focused, the A-Z index is currently proving useful. As our recent research paper outlines, DWG member scores in user testing for efficiency and effectiveness are improving where users also have access to a well thought out index.
I would like to think that indexes will eventually become surplus to requirements but at the moment we're finding that they are a useful secondary navigation tool. The term ‘secondary’ is used wisely as we’re not suggesting that an index is prioritised over tackling the symptoms of why they might sometimes be used.
As to why they are so popular with users; is it that they only include a finite amount of options unlike search? or that users are simply familiar with the A – Z index as in written material?
User information seeking behaviour varies and indexes are certainly helpful where a user knows precisely what they are looking for as they can simply click a link in the index rather than having to navigate intermediate pages in another site section.
Indexes, as with navigation must be clearly thought out and well designed to aid findability. Our new research paper documents design tips and cites examples of good practice from our member base.
In terms of whether you should invest or not, I would say not at the expense of improving current information architecture and search. However, I don't think it is practical just to say sort out all the other issues and ignore developing an index. In my experience I have seen them working well for users and in the meantime, while organizations are busy tackling how to make navigation structures more intuitive and user focused, there is at least an additional means of getting the customer to their end goal.
DWG members can read more about A-Z indexes and design tips for implementing them in our recent 'Good practice in implementing A-Zs' research paper, or hear the author discussing the research with members.
This is a guest post by Louise Kennedy, a Lead Usability Evaluator at DWG. In addition to benchmarking many members Louise is responsible for quality control across our usability benchmarking evaluations and has helped to develop both the intranet and internet models. A marketing professional with over 10 years client and agency experience advising large corporate clients on web strategy and information architecture based on user centric design methods. Louise has worked on a huge variety of web usability projects, from gathering user requirements in workshops worldwide, managing online surveys through to testing sites using observation, card sorting and eye tracking techniques.