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
"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