Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

What Should Drive Site Organization And Design: Consistency Or Flow?

Should a site navigation be driven by principles of consistency and accessibility to all "other" information available on the site, or should it be directed by flow principles?

Photo credit:Renato Cardoso

Though we have all been designing small and large sites with complete faith in the principles of pervasiveness and consistency of navigation, the time has come to question some of these assumptions.

Should we focus more on helping the users find what they want or shall we keep promoting the inventory of content our sites have available?

And even if we choose to help the user find more of what she wants, how can we be sure of what users really want?

Are content-rich sites to be considered more like libraries of information or rather as "knowledge parks" offering multiple and overlapping exploration trails?



Henrik Olsen, the man behind The Interaction's Designer Coffee Break, a great online resource devoted to weekly and quarterly postings about Interaction Design, writes about this issue:

"Both Jakob Nielsen and Mark Hurst question the value of the navigation schemes that have become standard on the web.

Top menus, left menus and breadcrumbs that are placed throughout the website are at best ignored - at worst distracting.

Others, such as Kristoffer Bohman, conclude that pervasive navigation (the one that appears across all site pages) should die since it's rarely needed, hard to interpret and takes up valuable space.

According to Jakob Nielsen there is no need to link to all sections from each and every page on a site.

We should limit pervasive navigation to five or six basic features and let people go back to the front page, if they want to start from the top. Instead, we should focus on getting users to what they want and provide useful links to related content.

In Mark Hurst's opinion designers put too much effort into content organization and design of navigation systems.

Organizing a site into sections and subsections does not by itself create a good user experience.

What matters is whether users can quickly and easily advance to the next step in the pursuit for their goal.

He suggests a three-step strategy to design for the click-link-or-hit-back-button behavior:

1) Identify users' goals on each page.

Easy to say, but what does this really mean? It means: give a very clear focus to each and every page you have as to make each one address a specific issue, topic, product or other clearly identifiable content theme. Make that theme very explicit and visible on each content page.

2) De-emphasize or remove any page elements (or areas of a site) that don't help to accomplish the goal.

If according to the focus you have given to a content page, many of the complementary navigation links you are showing on the page do not take the user to related or similarly relevant content, you should seriously consider muting down, moving or altogether eliminating this superfluos information. Overall access to all section can always be kept accessible from the home page, which then becomes a true routing point for accessing any of the Web site contents.

3) Emphasize (or insert) those links, forms, or other elements that either take users closer to their goal, or finally accomplish it.

Yes, enrich content pages with related and relevant information, that is complementary and useful to find out more about the specific "topic-theme"covered. Some good examples:

  • "Related articles"
  • ,
  • "Recent articles" on the same topic
  • ,
  • relevant books

  • highly relevant products and services (presented in non-obtrusive, non-interruptive ways)

  • theme-specific breaking news

  • opportunities to comment or discuss further

  • ability to search for more related content

  • selected online resources

  • more.

"It's silly to add navigation elements to a page just because it's consistent with the rest of the site." says Mark Hurst.

Consistency should not be the ruling principle.

He encourages designers to instead focus on the users' goals and the flow they go through to get there.

I think he is very right.

What do YOU think?

How can we strike a balance between the old site design school and the new school of flow?

Excerpts from "Navigation blindness - How to deal with the fact that people tend to ignore navigation tools"
by Henrik Olsen
Issue 13 January 2005

Readers' Comments    
2005-02-04 12:00:11


The trouble with this article is that it assumes that every web page on a site is designed by a single person, someone with a good overall underatnding of the whole site.

Most large sites are run from a CMS with a large number of contributors with the system taking care of layout and branding.

Nice idea, but it only works for small sites.

2005-02-02 14:33:22

Robin Good

Hello KJC,

I think you are very right.

I fully acknowledge the truth in the points you outline and I am on my way to improve.

I am not claiming to be the reference, I am only pointing to some critical reflections that made me think.

Thank you for reminding me how much readers like you appreciate such clear and focussed content.

Having no major company behind me to run this nano-publishing enterprise takes a bit of compromise in finding ways to get some sustainability while offering the highest quality content possible.

What would you as a reader be willing to give in to my sustainability in exchange for me to move some of those Google Ads out of the way?

2005-02-02 14:17:48


Interesting article, and I agree that too much navigation on a site is actually *less* helpful to users. Keep things simple, and let the user get their task done.

That said, I find it ironic that this page itself goes against the recommendations: My goal was to read this article, but I had to click through an introduction page to actually get to the article. Then on the actual article page I unknowingly stopped reading before the end because the Google ads placed right in the middle gave me the impression that the article had ended. (Of course, it seemed incomplete, so I went back to see if I missed anything...which I did.)

From your article:
1) Identify users' goals on each page.
2) De-emphasize or remove any page elements (or areas of a site) that don't help to accomplish the goal.

My responses:
1) I want to read your article.
2) Remove (or de-emphasize) the ads that are literally blocking the path to finish reading the article.

At the very least, you should do what sites such as Slate does (which would follow rule #3): insert a link that tells me "article continues after ad" (or something similar).

posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, February 1 2005, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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