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Image by Jason Goodman

Improving the IA for Returns Center

I truly believe that UX writers are some of the best people to handle information architecture.

The project presented here began with a request from the product team to rename the options on a settings page. However, as I proved with testing, the problem was with the entire site structure, not just the naming.

Through competitive research and first-click testing, you'll see how I greatly improved the learnability of this product, creating a site structure that will allow the team to grow the product and add new features easily and logically.

Key results

Significant improvement in learnability
First-click success rates of up to 90%

The problem

Returns Center is one of AfterShip's core products. However, ever since joining AfterShip I identified it as a problem product in terms of product design and information architecture.

After presenting the problem to our head of product, I was tasked with "fixing" the naming of options on the settings page.

Returns Center suffered from one of the main problems I highlight in my book UX Writing for Beginners: It was built around functions and features rather than user goals. This resulted in a product that was essentially 90% settings pages. In some cases, just to enable a basic feature, the user had to go to multiple settings pages to get it set up.

From the screenshot below, you can see how awkward the site structure had become. The main navigation on the left had very few options. Conversely, everything the user needed to actually do to use Returns Center, was in one of the myriad of settings pages shown here in the middle of the page, only accessible after first clicking "Settings" in the bottom left.

The naming on the Settings page was also a problem. There were three different pages named "rules" (Eligibility rules, return routing rules, and automation rules). It doesn't require research and testing to see it makes more sense to put these under a single section called "Rules".

The section called "Return settings" was also very unclear. On the "Settings" page, under "Feature settings", it's hard to understand why there's another page called "Return settings". Surely everything on this "Settings" page is return settings?

As someone working at AfterShip, I was constantly getting lost in this product, unable to find the features I was looking for. Customers must have had an equally hard time.

Research and testing

My aim was to structure the product around user goals, not features or functions. But to prove to the product team that there was a problem with the existing product structure and not just the naming, I decided to run a first-click test.

As a UX writer with little to no budget for user testing, a first-click test is a fantastic option that can quickly and cheaply highlight problems with product or page structure.

Bob Bailey and Cari Wolfson’s 2006 study “First Click Usability Testing” showed that when users were given a task, if they made the correct first click, there was an 87% chance they would complete an entire task correctly. If they guessed the first click wrong, there was just a 46% chance they would complete the entire task correctly. This means that the first click can serve as a litmus test, showing how well a page or site is set up.

Due to a lack of budget for testing, I recruited most test subjects internally. I found colleagues with a limited understanding of Returns Center. I needed people that knew what the product was and what it did, but that had no familiarity with the product structure. These were colleagues in teams such as finance, legal, and marketing. Luckily we managed to recruit some online sellers for this test for free as well. In the end about 50% of testees were internal colleagues, 50% were online sellers.

The reason I wanted people unfamiliar with the product was to test the learnability for new users. I don't believe anyone should require extensive previous knowledge to user our products, or at least to navigate around them.

The slideshow below shows the results of asking users how they would go about completing four key tasks on the original Returns Center. You can clearly see that users had no idea where to even begin. Aside from question 4, most testees made incorrect clicks when asked how they would complete a common task.

The competition

While thinking about building pages around user goals, one of the first things I did was look at the competitors.

In the images below I mapped out the site structure for Returns Center, Loop, and Returnly. The red boxes highlight which pages are settings pages. Both Returns Center and Loop are organized around settings as you can see from the sheer number of settings pages. This is what I was trying to avoid in the new design. 

You can see from the much smaller number of settings pages on Returnly that they have built their product around goals.

Returns Center

Building pages
around user goals

After testing showed that new users could not find what they were looking for, I set about restructuring Returns Center. My goal was to move as many of the settings over to the left-hand navigation as possible, and build this navigation around user goals.

The first thing I did was sit down with the product team and walk through the user flows for the most common user goals. In some cases, the user had to go to five completely unrelated and unlinked settings pages to set up one simple feature.

From the three user flows below, you can see the complexity of the original design. Each square represents a completely different page the user has to visit. For the first goal (setting up which products are eligible for a refund/exchange) the user had to visit up to five pages. 

The other problem highlighted by these user flows, is the lack of links or guidance of any kind between steps and pages. The user was completely on their own to locate pages and options in an attempt to set something up.

The lack of any guidance and the need to visit multiple pages to achieve one goal, meant that Returns Center had a terribly high learnability cost.

In the end, I did a complete restructure for all features, based around user goals.

From the redesigns below, you can see how I combined related features onto a single page. One page for eligibility, which included everything that was previously spread across five pages. One for automation, which had all automation rules in one place. And one for shipping, where everything from carriers to warehouses, package sizes, and labels could be managed in one place.

Testing the new navigation

Two things needed to be rectified and tested with another first-click test:

1. Building pages and navigation around user goals
2. The naming on the new navigation bar

You can see the comparison between the old and new versions below. The settings section was significantly reduced. I structured the top-level navigation options around user goals: managing returns, analytics, customizing the returns page and notifications, setting up return rules, and everything related to shipping.


The naming structure was based on user goals, but also took inspiration from the competition. The reason for this is that a lot of new Returns Center users migrate over from the competition. Having a similar naming structure, even if the site structure is not exactly the same, makes it much easier for those users to navigate this new product.

The next thing to do was test the new navigation with another first-click test. I used the same group of test subjects but left a two-week gap between the two tests. I also ensured that no one had used Returns Center during that two week period, and that no one knew the results of the first test. As far as they were concerned, this was similar to an A/B test, simply testing two versions to see which was easier to navigate around.

The results below speak for themselves.

Obviously the results were not perfect, but with an adequate onboarding flow, users should now be able to navigate around the site with ease.

Product teams often forget that users don't spend 24 hours a day using their product. They have other things to do during the day. They also might not use the product for days, and so they forget where things are even with a proper onboarding process. This first-click test was conducted with no training or onboarding, and so the results are very promising.


I was very happy with the results. The first-click test showed a marked improvement in learnability and usability. One of my goals as a content designer is to help product teams build products around user goals, and this project was the perfect chance to do this. The original Returns Center was a list of settings pages. The new Returns Center has a much more logical structure.

The only thing I would have done differently was remove "Return workflows" from the settings page. But this was a temporary workaround until the future of this feature had been determined. Leaving it on the "Settings" page also meant that users had two entrances to set up labels for bulky items, and to set up questions they want to ask the customer before allowing a return. This meant these features were easier to find in the new design.

This was the perfect project to use data, testing, and research to prove the value of content design, and user testing, at AfterShip.

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