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Navigational Nous*

(SIGCHI Bulletin January/February 2002)

Alan Cooper’s October 2001 article on navigation (Navigating isn't fun) sparked an interesting discussion on CHI-WEB. Alan’s premise was that for most business users, navigation was not something that they really wanted to spend time doing. He contrasted business use with casual browsing or entertainment, where navigation adds a certain sense of exploration and discovery. In the debate that followed, some contributors argued that navigation is necessary to enable users to build conceptual models of a site, especially where they are relative to the whole. Others argued that comparisons with real-world navigation were not necessarily valid and that users did not generally build navigational models in any event.

Elements of Navigation

One of the reasons that navigation is such a difficult topic in general discussion is that the term itself means several different things when applied to web sites:

  • Organization – how a large volume of information is split into categories.
  • Structure – how the categories are organized, e.g. hierarchical, sequential, network.
  • Presentation – the type and location of interface elements used to implement organization and structure. Common approaches are global and local navigation panels, simple links and drop-down menus.
  • Navigating – the act of moving between and within pages by using the interface elements provided.

Naturally, all four elements of navigation are closely related, but I think that what becomes clear is that organization, structure and presentation need to be designed to minimize the amount of actual navigating required. Minimize navigation? Surely, navigation is one of the key features if the web. Why would we want to minimize it?

Back to Basics

Let’s forget the web for a moment and return to fundamental user interface design. In UID we presuppose that users have goals that they are trying achieve. We measure the success of an interface by how closely user’s goals map onto actions in that interface. The best results will be achieved with navigation that is organized according to users’ expectations, structured to support common goals and presented in a clear, consistent and familiar way. It is inherent in our definition of success that the less users have to do to reach their goal, the better the interface is.

Doesn’t this approach push us towards single-page web sites? Not really. Navigation within a single page is still navigation. Scrolling down a page has a slightly lower conceptual cost associated with it than following a link, but as soon as a page is more than a few screens deep, scrolling stops being an effective navigational tool.

Just Browsing

What about suggestions that navigating helps users to understand the scope and structure of web sites? There are several issues here:

  • Even in the real world, the act of navigating doesn’t necessarily reveal structure. Maps are much better for this.
  • I’m personally not convinced how interested in the scope and structure of web sites most users really are. They usually have some purpose in visiting a web site, even if that purpose is poorly formed. It would be better to investigate your users’ motives then to try to reflect the size and complexity of your organization in the navigation of your web site.
  • Jared Spool and his colleagues at User Interface Engineering have compelling evidence that users don’t really put that much effort into understanding where they are. They are mostly interested in where they want to be. (See UIE’s recent report on web site navigation for more details.)

Minimal Navigation in Practice

If we accept that minimizing the act of navigation is a good thing, how best to achieve it? Here are some practical suggestions borne of my own frustrations at having to change pages when I didn’t want to:

  • Don’t be frightened of making pages longer (within reason). If it means that all of the relevant information can be put on one page it’s worth a little scrolling.
  • Adopt an “inverted pyramid” structure within pages. This means putting all of the important information first. As users progress down the page they should get an expansion of the main points. If the page relates to a product, put the price and comparisons with other products in the range at the top of the page.
  • Get users’ goals, categories and navigational expectations from users (more of this in the UIE report as well). Don’t just assume that any reasonable person would want it the way you’ve designed it.

*Nous: British informal, practical intelligence (rhymes with mouse).

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

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© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in SIGCHI Bulletin, {Volume 34, January-February 2002} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/967135.967147

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