directional guidance feature image

Directional Guidance: What It Is And How To Improve It

The job of product marketing and ecommerce leaders is to guide the user to the best-fit product for them. Directional guidance is the umbrella term for doing just that.

On any road, hundreds of visual and sensory cues offer directional guidance.

Speed bumps signal the driver to slow down, the rest stop sign reminds them they can take a break on a long trip, and rumble strips alert when they’re swerving into dangerous territory. Curbs keep drivers and pedestrians on separate sections of the road, while curb cuts offer an optional designated crossing area.

All of these indicators intuitively keep us on the right path while occasionally offering alternative routes or opportunities we may not have been thinking of. Similarly, in digital experience design, directional guidance nudges users on a path toward their end goal.

It helps users find what they are looking for by adding visibility to elements that will increase their motivation or intent. It displays compelling options of where the user can go next.

The placement of specific website elements can either guide a user toward their ideal product or take them off track. Strategizing and keeping directional guidance top of mind as you optimize can help direct users through a complicated digital journey.

What is directional guidance in UX?

Directional guidance in UX is a sum of strategies, tactics, or elements that optimization experts implement to help users accomplish a specific goal on a website.

It’s an umbrella term that encompasses anything put on a user’s path to help them find what they want.

“Directional guidance doesn’t just increase the findability of what a user knows they want, it increases the discoverability of things a user didn’t even know they wanted. It adds utility across a website so users can build a mental model of what is in the company’s catalog and how to get there.”

Natalie Thomas, Director of Digital Experience Optimization & UX Strategy at The Good

In digital experience design, directional guidance can be as direct as a clear call to action and easy-to-use navigation or as indirect as personalizing recommendations and surfacing relevant content. It’s like a personal website concierge telling you, “right this way.”

5 ways to improve directional guidance (with examples)

So, what are some specific ways to improve directional guidance on your website?

Of course, we have to caveat that you should develop strategies relevant to your specific goals and users, but here are a few ideas to get the wheels turning.

1. Add suggested products to predictive search

Increasing the use of search is a great way to encourage intentional browsing, but often users need a helping hand to guide them to relevant products or pages.

Featuring popular or relevant products in search suggestions can improve product discoverability, increase the helpfulness of search, and help users quickly and easily navigate the site.

suggested product in predictive search to improve directional guidance in a website

Deeper customizations might include featuring different products based on user segment, search terms entered, seasonality, or geographic area of the site.

2. Change sort order

Sort orders often default to standard settings that don’t support user goals.

Testing alternative default sort orders (by popularity, by price) can help users quickly discover the products that are right for them and improve directional guidance.

For example, we tested sorting products by featured rather than families to improve the visibility of product listings and increase engagement on category pages.

This resulted in an 8.5% increase in conversion rate.

filtering options in an online shoe brand's website

3. Add quick links

Even within a well-organized menu, users can struggle to navigate to relevant information quickly.

Showcasing what actions users can take with “quick links” promotes directness toward relevant pages.

exposed categories on website

Improving directional guidance with quick links can encourage deeper page depth from paid ads, decrease bounce rates, and lead to increased transactions.

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4. Improve visual hierarchy of mobile menu

A key principle of visual design, visual hierarchy, is crucial to improving directional guidance.

Many websites have poor content hierarchy, particularly in mobile navigation. Users can suffer from indecision without the guidance of a well-organized and directional menu.

Separating shopping-focused links from other kinds of content in the navigation can increase directional guidance and decrease distraction for would-be shoppers.

winning test for visual design hierarchy

For one of our clients, re-ordering the popular navigation menu links in line with the primacy and recency effect positively impacted conversions, leading to over $4MM in annual revenue gains

5. Add sticky elements

Another way to improve directional guidance is making key elements sticky and therefore, easily accessible to users as they browse.

Sticky CTA

When users are considering a product, they will scroll through product detail pages to find details that make them more confident to purchase. For example, adding a sticky CTA like a sticky add-to-cart or a sticky buy button, can provide easy access to add-to-cart once the user decides.

Adding a sticky CTA is great for brands with longer PDPs, specifically increasing engagement with product details, reducing friction, and increasing adds to cart.

example of sticky CTA to improve directional guidance in an app

Sticky search

High-intent users often have an idea of what product they are looking for, and search users generally convert 5-7x better than non-search users. Using search can help them quickly find the product they have in mind.

So, making the search bar sticky improves directional guidance by encouraging use of search and helping guide shoppers to right-fit products.

This is especially true for sites that have a large amount of high-intent users, many SKUs, or sites where users primarily navigate with the search bar.

screenshot of sticky search bar on a website

What are examples of poor directional guidance?

Now that you have five ways to improve directional guidance, what are some signs that your site suffers from poor directional guidance?

Low visibility or low discoverability of items: If your items or products are hidden behind multiple clicks or proverbial corners, your users can’t find what they are looking for (or discover something they don’t know they need!)

Unclear system status: If there is a break in communication between the computer or digital product and the user, then you have poor directional guidance. For example, giving an error message right when a user starts typing their password before they have even clicked ‘login.’

Content fatigue: When your site has too much content (text, images, links, etc.), the user might not find the one product that is meant for them which will trigger a purchase decision.

Confusing or unclear language: Speaking in brand language that isn’t clear to the user removes information scent and prevents them from moving down the funnel.

These are just a few things to look out for in your user testing and research to uncover poor directional guidance in your digital experience.

Is wayfinding the same as directional guidance?

At this point, UX practitioners may be asking themselves, “how is this different from wayfinding?”

Wayfinding falls under the umbrella of directional guidance but is not the same thing.

To differentiate the term, our team often uses the analogy of an airport. Wayfinding is like hanging signs in the airport. While helpful, imagine all the information you needed in an airport was on a sign. You wouldn’t know what to read or look at next.

Instead, airports analyze foot traffic and incorporate strategic pathways, seating areas, audio cues, and symbols to both get you where you need to go AND offer helpful stops along the way. This is directional guidance.

Wayfinding is the signs and cues pointing you to your gate, while the directional guidance might be a water fountain and bathroom along the way for a convenient stop before your flight. Things you may not have realized you needed, placed strategically to help you uncover your needs.

For digital experience design, it is similar.

“Wayfinding is about navigation, while directional guidance is about having the right information on the page, in the right place, so that users know what to buy or sign up for.”

 Maggie Paveza, User Experience and Optimization Strategist at The Good

Are directional cues the same as directional guidance?

Another common mistake is using directional cues interchangeably for directional guidance.  

Directional guidance and directional cues work together to keep the user on their path, but directional cues specifically are visual hints that guide a user to the most important elements on the screen.

There are explicit directional cues and implicit directional cues, including:

  • Explicit directional cues:
    • Eye gaze
    • Arrows
    • Gesturing or pointing
    • Object positioning
    • Lines
  • Implicit directional cues:
    • Contrasting colors
    • White space
    • Visual hierarchy
    • Framing or encapsulation

Again, directional guidance is the umbrella term, and directional cues may support that overarching goal of guiding the user to where they need to go.

The importance of directional guidance in digital experience optimization

The job of product marketing and ecommerce leaders is to guide the user to the best-fit product for them. Directional guidance is the umbrella term for doing just that.

It’s a combination of many strategies, tactics, or elements, including wayfinding, feature discovery, merchandising, information architecture, bundling, navigation, and more. Finding the right way to make these all work together for your user is the key to optimization.

It can be a lot to accomplish without an external, user-centered POV. If you’d like support in your efforts, contact us.

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About the Author

Caroline Appert

Caroline Appert is the Director of Marketing at The Good. She has proven success in crafting marketing strategies and executing revenue-boosting campaigns for companies in a diverse set of industries.