Tree Testing: What It Is and How It Can Help Your Website

The first 10 seconds of a user’s page visit are critical in their decision to stay or leave a website. During these first seconds, users are extremely critical, and if the web page looks bad or is organized poorly, most users won’t waste their time. Tree testing can give you all the answers you need to keep your users on your site.


What is Tree Testing? 

Tree testing is a helpful tool for evaluating the organization and structure of your website or prototype. In tree testing, a text version of the website’s hierarchy is laid out in front of test participants. They are then asked to highlight a page or category within that structure where they would expect a certain item or content piece to be. 

How Does Tree Testing Differ From Card Sorting?

Tree testing is sometimes also known as reverse card sorting. In card sorting, the test participants are presented with a list of items and asked to group them in the way that makes the most sense to them. 

This puts the responsibility on the participants to create their own categories and group items within those categories as they see fit. Tree testing switches this by asking the testers to work with a pre-existing set of categories and select where they believe an item is most likely to be located. 

Logically, card sorting would take place before tree testing, as tree testing is actually a great way to validate results from your card sorting experiences. 

What Can Tree Testing Reveal?

Tree testing helps identify any navigation issues with your site or app. You’re able to analyze where a user would expect to find their desired information so you can make improvements to your website based on this behavior. 

Tree testing helps you validate the effectiveness of your website’s organization, structure, and labeling. This way, you can ensure that users aren’t getting confused and overwhelmed when they reach your site, encouraging them to stay longer. 

Unlike other tests for information architecture, tree testing presents a participant with a realistic scenario so you can learn about real-world behavior and decision processes. 

Tree testing is also relatively quick, so it is easy to test different variations of your website structure and compare the results often. This is especially useful if you prefer to work with quantitative results. For example, you could find that version A had a 52% success rate compared to Version B’s 15%. 

And similar to card sorting, the ultimate advantage is that instead of making assumptions about user behavior, you will improve your navigation by observing how real people navigate through your site. 

How to Run a Tree Test

Tree testing is usually done remotely with users on their own computer, unmoderated. 

If you’re interested in gaining more qualitative insight, like a running commentary on why a user is making certain decisions, you could also order a moderated session. However, these sessions would have to be one-on-one, and you may find limited resources can affect how many you are able to run. 

Unlike standard user testing, tree testing happens on a simplified text version of your website and removes everything except the categories’ navigable structure and subcategories. This eliminates any visual distractions and other navigation methods, like search or breadcrumbs, so the user’s behavior won’t be affected.

According to NNG, a tree should be a complete list of all your main content categories and subcategories. They also make note that even if you are only interested in a specific section of your menu, you should still include other categories. 

They also recommend a tree that is 3-5 levels deep and allows your users to go down to the lowest subcategory level, with each subcategory giving a full list of options for that area. So basically, make it just like your live website. 

A tree test shouldn’t take any longer than 15-20 minutes, and the user shouldn’t be asked to complete more than 10 tasks. With a longer time or additional tasks, fatigue and boredom will set in, and users will become more familiar with the site structure, skewing results. 

What to Look for in Tree Test Results

The results of tree testing tend to be easier to analyze than card sorting results, mostly because of the more quantitative nature of the data. 

The data from tree tests visualize the different paths a user takes to get to specific content. 

Some other measures you might want to look for are 

  • Directness: the percent of users completing a task without hesitation and getting the right answer the first time
  • Success: the percent of users that completed a task vs. the failed attempts
  • Time: the time it took a user to complete a task

You could also look at the number of attempts it took for a user to complete a task. This can help indicate where items are difficult to find. 

These types of results should help you decide where there are issues in your structure or organization. 

However, if your data isn’t giving you enough insight, a moderated tree test could be beneficial to understanding a user’s exact reasoning at the moment. 


Tree testing is a simple, quick, and relatively inexpensive way to evaluate and analyze your content organization. It helps you understand where your users will expect to find content, ultimately allowing you to create a better-organized website that keeps users with you. 

A global team of digerati with offices in Washington, D.C. and Southern California, we provide digital marketing, web design, and creative for brands you know and nonprofits you love.

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