Sibling categories – that is, categories that are placed next to one another in the site’s category taxonomy – are hugely important as they enable users to make easy scope adjustments and better interpret the current scope.
During testing we often observed subjects who were unsure about the nuances of two or more categories. It’s in instances like those where sibling categories can offer a helping hand to the bewildered user – allowing them to easily switch back and forth between the different sibling categories and work out their exact boundaries by looking over the different product lists.
We often saw users try out one category first, only to realize that it wasn’t a great fit upon looking over the products within it, and then proceed to the next sibling category in the hopes for a better fit. Despite this fairly common and logical navigation pattern, which works well for finding product alternatives as well as supplementary products, only 53% of the major e-commerce sites support the behavior.
When within a sub-category, 47% of the top e-commerce sites only display the product list and related filtering tools along with navigation options to go up the hierarchy (breadcrumbs, “back” links, etc), not allowing the user to navigate the categories laterally - 47% simply don’t display sibling categories. Not even when closely related product type categories are available.
It’s important to note that the purpose of displaying sibling categories on category pages next to the product list isn’t just to save the user a couple of clicks (going back up the hierarchy to the parent category and then selecting one of the other sub-categories). Their permanent presence provides the user with essential information scent.
For example, if a user is within a “Shoes” scope on a women’s clothing site, and sibling categories such as “Boots”, “Pumps” and “Sandals” are displayed, the user can much more accurately deduce what will and won’t be included in their current category. The display of sibling categories furthermore informs the user about other related product types or variations that are available within their current scope.
Depending on the scope of the sibling categories, they can serve different purposes:
The key benefit of displaying sibling categories is therefore the information scent they provide. This makes the user better informed about their current context and what options they have to adjust their current scope.
This makes sibling categories particularly valuable to users who landed on the page in a non-linear fashion (search engine, cross-navigation, social media link, etc) as they will need to try and work out where in the site’s hierarchy they’ve landed, what their options are, and what the boundaries are of those options – the exact benefits of displaying sibling categories. If a user is stuck, it similarly helps them adjust their scope instead of starting all over at the top of the navigation hierarchy.
So yes, sibling categories saves the user a few clicks (which is of course nice) but their real benefit is in the context they provide about the current page, its scope, and the general taxonomy of the product range. It’s therefore recommended to display sibling categories on all category pages next to the product list.
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thank you for your great article. I think that showing sibling categories is very important for users.
But how do you proceed if categories are within multiple parent categories(like baymard suggest in that smashing magazine article http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/11/11/guidelines-navigation-categories-ecommerce-study/ )? What sibling categories do you suggest to show?
I can see three possible solutions:
- Show only the sibling categories from one parent category (because maybe there is a primary parent category)
- Show the sibling categories from all of the parent categories
- Show only the sibling categories from the hierachy the user took (not possible if user comes from seo or social-media etc.)
Is there another way to handle that and what do you suggest?
If the user took a certain path, that should always be the path being shown since you don’t want your user having doubts about his own actions.
If the user landed by SEO, then you should have already set your canonical categories, eliminating alternative paths.
Whatever you do, make sure you do not contradict user’s expectations.
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