Do you know what the so-called tree testing is? Read our article, in which we introduce you to this method. Well-conducted tree testing allows you to improve your site architecture and create a more user-friendly, intuitive final product – and as a result, positively impact the overall user experience.

What is tree testing? – table of contents:

  1. What is Tree Testing?
  2. Tree testing vs Card Sorting and First Click testing
  3. When to apply Tree Testing?
  4. Disadvantages of Tree Testing
  5. How to conduct Tree Testing
  6. Summary

What is Tree Testing?

Tree testing means assessing the architecture of a designed website or application – in particular, its menu – that is, a kind of “branching” of tabs and subpages in the product (hence the name referring to a tree). This method is relatively simple to carry out and you can employ it early in the development process to save a lot of time and effort later on. Tree testing allows you to get the feedback you need to design a functional website or application that has a menu.

Tree Testing vs Card Sorting and First Click testing

Tree testing is also sometimes referred to as “backward card sorting” and to some extent resembles First Click Testing, so it is difficult to describe it without discussing other methods first them. However, note that these solutions are strongly related and may seem quite similar on the surface, but they have very different functions in UX design.

First click testing involves giving subjects a task – for example, searching for opening hours on a store’s website – and recording whether the first place a user clicks on is the right path for that task. Failure to click in the right place or taking too long to find information will suggest that something is wrong with the layout of our site. Either the site architecture is unintuitive or the design of the site is confusing or distracting in some way. It may also mean that the right place to click has been accidentally hidden or obscured. First click tests can take place both when wanting to examine a new design and to investigate possible problems in an existing design.

On the other hand, card sorting involves handing the participant a group of cards (paper or electronic on a computer screen), each containing a specific slogan/category/word. We then ask the subjects to sort the cards and group them in the most logical and meaningful way. Although this method has several possible applications, it is often employed as the first step in designing the structure of a website or application.

Having a basic grasp of card sorting and first click testing, we can move on to a broader discussion of tree testing. Tree testing involves showing the participants the architecture of the site and asking them where they would click to achieve a given goal (a mandated task). However, unlike first click testing, it does not end at this stage. The tester must take the entire path, from the first page to the last click. It is worth remembering that performing the first click correctly, does not guarantee success – the user can still get lost before completing the task. An incorrectly laid out page structure results in the loss of users.

Another significant difference between tree testing and first click testing is that the primer only covers the structure of a page, not its content or layout. During first click testing, invalid clicks can result, for example, from too big or too small buttons, their incorrect placement or wrong color – even if the basic architecture of the page is correct. In tree testing, none of these variables are relevant, because the participants don’t see the entire layout of the page but only a diagram showing which headings will contain which subheadings.

Tree testing is often referred to as backward card sorting because both of these methods focus very closely on the site’s architecture and its branching “tree” of options – or menus. In card sorting, you ask users to create “trees” for you, which you further test (tree testing).

tree testing

When to apply Tree Testing?

You can conduct it very early in the design process since the site – or even a sketch of it – doesn’t have to exist yet. All that is needed for the test is a “tree” prepared at an earlier stage, such as when sorting cards with users. If the tree doesn’t pass the test, the problem is relatively simple and, above all, cheap to fix, since you don’t have to go very far back in the process.

Keep in mind that in the UX industry, there is no single ideal process or guidelines for the methods you must use every time on a project. It all depends on your situation, your time and human resources, your budget as well as the scope of the project itself. We should choose methods depending on the problem, what we are investigating, and what we want to achieve and improve in the product.

However, if you are working on a more elaborate site – which will feature a menu and at least several sub-pages it is worth working on the architecture specifically. Sorting the tabs by users, combined with a subsequent tree test, will enable you to prepare an intuitive, user-friendly and clear site architecture, resulting in a clear interface that is simply easy to navigate.

Disadvantages of the tree test method

Tree testing focuses only on the architecture of the site – which can come as invaluable help to a UX designer because if the test reveals a problem, we know exactly where it lies. However, many other things can go wrong in design, so don’t just use tree testing. To ensure the usability of the entire product, you also need sources of information about other aspects of the design and its functionality. Another potential disadvantage of tree testing could be that, because of the automated and remote process, it’s hard to get qualitative data from it that could pinpoint the causes of problems.

How to conduct a tree test?

  1. Design the test
  2. Testing a tree logistically is quite simple, as it doesn’t require moving, gathering materials or coordinating more people. All you need to do in preparation is design your test.

  3. Select the tools
  4. While it is possible to perform tree testing with a hand-drawn site map and a notepad, however, most testing is done online using specialized tools. They allow you to enter categories and subcategories (generally all menu branching elements), from which a clickable tree is created, adapted for testing.

    Participants get a link to the test and perform the assigned tasks. They can do this in an unmoderated setting, in the comfort of their own home using a private computer, or in a moderated setting where the entire test can be observed. The tool tracks where participants click, how long it takes them, the order in which they click each object/element as well as how many of them click in the right places.

  5. Create the tree
  6. Of course, before you test the tree you will need to design it and decide what part of it you want to try – if your site is very complex and extensive, you don’t need to try all the paths at once. You can run an A/B test and asses two different trees at the same time – to evaluate which one works better. However, remember not to show both versions to the same tester.

  7. Write assignments
  8. When preparing tasks for your sampled group, try not to make them too easy, “find store opening hours.” Remember to avoid the same wording as the answer key. Second, the tester must be in the same mood and the same situation as the real user – the mind works differently depending on whether the person is solving a test or trying to solve an actual life problem. Give the tester a realistic scenario instead of one simple test question.

    Also, don’t create scenarios that are too complicated: leave out irrelevant details that may confuse you. Remember that many participants will just browse through the questions instead of reading them carefully with understanding, and thus may mistake the extra detail for the central point of the task. One or two sentences are enough.

    The same test can – and indeed should – include several tasks to obtain a bigger and more detailed picture of whether the tree is working as planned. However, you should keep to no more than 10 commands, so that the entire test doesn’t take too long and tire the tester out too much. If you plan to test more than 10 tasks, plan more than one test. You will never be able to test everything, every possible path on the page, so focus on the elements that are the most crucial to the usability of the product, and those that you suspect may be a particular problem.


Tree testing has the advantage over most other tests thanks to the modern tools available on the market as they are easy to prepare and conduct. We believe that we have succeeded in presenting tree testing, as a helpful, low-cost and simple method of design verification. Bear in mind though, that it will not work in every situation and – as a principle of most UX research methods – need supplementing with other tests for more reliable results and a broader understanding of the problems the users face.

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What is tree testing? | UX research #28 klaudia brozyna avatar 1background

Author: Klaudia Kowalczyk

A graphic & UX Designer which conveys into design what cannot be conveyed in words. For him, every used color, line or font has a meaning. Passionate in graphic and web design.

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