CNN.com's designers have gone out of their way to make their work
difficult. They could have built a very simple home page with just
their logo and a handful of links:
- The Most Important Story
- The Second Most Important Story
- The Third Most Important Story
- An Unimportant, Yet Entertaining Story
- Yet Another Story about Michael Jackson
If this was CNN's home page, the designers could go home and not have
any work for weeks. After all, what is a news site's home page but a
list of links to the most important stories? (And the unexplainable
insatiable curiosity about Michael Jackson's latest antics.)
Yet, these links aren't effective for users because they're missing a
key component: the Trigger Words. Trigger words are the words and
phrases that *trigger* a user into clicking. They contain the
essential elements to provide the motivation to continue with the
> The Move-Forward-Until-Found Rule
When dealing with information, a web page can do only one of
two things: either it contains the content the user wants *or* it
contains the links to get them to the content they want. If a page
doesn't follow this rule, then the users stop clicking and they aren't
likely to find their target content.
CNN.com's home page follows the Move-Forward-Until-Found rule: Almost
one-third of the home page is content -- the most important story of
the moment. (Because it's news, this content is updated every 15
minutes, giving the CNN developers plenty to do all day.)
The rest of the page contains dozens of links, in case the top story
on the home page wasn't everything the user wanted. These links only
work when they contain the right trigger words. It's CNN's mastery of
trigger words that make it so interesting.
> Dissecting Detailed Descriptions
A few years ago, we studied a handful of users while they searched for
specific items of interest on large web sites. These were items *they*
were interested in and no two users searched for the same items in
this study. Each item they searched for was on the sites we were
Before every user started their search, we interviewed them
extensively about what they hoped to find. We had them describe their
targets in excruciating detail. We recorded every word they said.
Then, we set them off on their hunt, recording every page they visited
on the site.
After seeing which users succeeding at finding their target content
and which didn't, we analyzed each page they visited thoroughly,
including the home page. Part of our analysis including studying the
words they used to describe their targets.
It turned out that users were far more successful at finding their
targets when the description words, which they told us *before* they
saw the site, appeared on the home page. In the tasks where users
successfully found their target content, the description words
appeared on the home page 72% of the time. When users were
unsuccessful, their words only appeared an average of 6% of the time
on the home page.
Description words are a major type of trigger word. This study
indicates that if those trigger words are found on the home page,
users are far more likely to get what they are looking for.
> Trigger Words as Search Keywords
Another interesting fact from that study: In those tasks where the
users didn't find their target, they were far more likely to use the
site's Search function than in those tasks where the description words
appeared on the home page. When the words did appear, users usually
clicked on the associated links instead of using Search.
In fact, when users did eventually go to Search, they almost always
typed one or more of the description words as their search terms. It
makes sense to us that users would use their description as their
search term. This was when we realized the failed searches in a site's
search log are important clues to understanding the users' trigger
> Getting Scent from Flower Displays
It would be silly for the CNN.com home page team to change to the
generic links above. However, you'd be surprised how often it happens.
One of the more outrageous examples is the site for the popular Staten
Island landscaper, Wiesner Brothers. After clicking on the landscaping
link at the top of the home page, the user is presented a page for
which the only links are the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8,
representing different showcase projects from the landscaper. (See a
picture of the landscaping page at Wiesner Brothers' site)
You'd be hard pressed to provide *less* trigger words than these
designers have. When the user clicks on a number, say #5, they get a
new set of links with a similar lack of trigger words. Here you get
links that are labeled "View 01", "View 02", "View 03" and so forth.
(See a picture of "project 5")
It's obvious that the designers intended the user would focus on the
beautiful landscapes and just click through each picture serially.
Maybe that's the case, at which point this design may be optimal for
that use. (We don't know because we haven't tested it.)
However, is it possible some users are coming to the site with a
specific project in mind? How would they jump to those showcases that
are most similar to their project? Would they become frustrated having
to look through unrelated projects?
> An Analogue at Analog
If you visited the web site for Analog Devices a few years ago, it
looked like many other high tech product company's sites: a single
800x600 design that had a few key category links like "Data
Converters", "Amplifiers and Linear", and "Corporate Information".
Just what you'd expect for a leading electronics producer. (See a
picture of Analog Devices home page in February of 2003)
Recently, however, the site has completely redesigned. With the help
of our friends at InContext Enterprises, Analog has major revamp of
their home page. This new design tested very well with users and the
company has already seen positive effects. (See a picture of the
current Analog Devices home page)
What's the big difference between these two designs? Well, beyond the
increased use of screen real estate, the major difference is the huge
number of trigger words they've added to the home page.
Since many of Analog Device's customers are engineers looking for
information about components to build into their products, the company
has focused on making sure their trigger words appear on the home
page. Instead of having to guess what major category a particular
component falls under, the engineers now can quickly pick the closest
component out of a list, going directly to the content they desire.
> Identifying Users' Trigger Words
How do you find out what your users' trigger words are? Well, you
start by asking them.
Visiting your users in their natural environments is a wonderful way
to start. You can bet that Analog Devices didn't make their changes
without spending time watching engineers research and select
We've found that personas are a great way to communicate trigger words
to everyone on the design team. A persona is a detailed description of
a user the team wants to ensure is successful on the site. Listing,
within the persona, the trigger words that person would use helps the
designers understand how the users' own language will impact the final
In addition, we've never conducted a usability test that didn't yield
tremendous insight into how users react to the links the team is
using. It becomes obvious immediately when links are missing the clues
the users need to go forward.
This powerful trio -- field studies, personas, and usability testing
-- are a great way to start identifying the trigger words that work
for your users.
> Getting the Most Out of Every Link
The purpose of every link is to move users forward. Each link needs to
give off enough "scent" to clue the user into the content to follow.
That scent comes from the trigger words. When creating new content,
the designers' most important task is to ensure that the links to that
content contains the right trigger words
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A permanent version of this article is at
If you'd like to know more about the Scent of Information and how
Trigger Words work, see our latest report, Designing for the Scent of
Jared M. Spool, Founding Principal
A software developer and programmer, Jared founded User Interface Engineering in 1988. He has more than 15 years of experience conducting usability evaluations on a variety of products, and is an expert in low-fidelity prototyping techniques.
Jared is on the faculty of the Tufts University Gordon Institute and teaches seminars on product usability. He is a member of SIGCHI, the Usability Professionals Association, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the IEEE. Jared is a recognized authority on user interface design and human factors in computing. He is a regular tutorial speaker at the annual CHI conference and Society for Technical Communications conferences around the country.