Navigation and the Scent of Information

When I was in college, there was a class that occurred every semester where we always knew when its most popular exercise was taking place. Students would be everywhere on campus with blindfolds on, being led by their guide person to classes and lunch.

I’m reminded of this class experiment when I visit web sites with clumsy navigation. They may start off with a simple “walk forward” link and think this is good. However, it’s not. If you’re blindfolded and someone tells you to “walk forward”, you may ask, “Where are you taking me” or “Why?” We have the same questions when we walk around web sites.

The “scent of information” is a funky phrase that means, “Give me a strong hint about where you’re going to take me next”. We’re more likely to take the step forward if we know we’ll be rewarded with something we want or need, and if we’re confident we’ll get there intact.

Getting Lost

I was on Twitter’s web site today and, being curious as to why the “older” button is deactivated, I decided to poke around the site to see if it was something I had done. This is typical user behavior. We blame ourselves first when something doesn’t work. I, like some of you, think that while we were sleeping, tiny gremlins went into our favorite sites and wreaked havoc on our personal settings.

I clicked from the Twitter homepage to their Help page. Apparently, they want to keep me on that page forever because they removed the top global navigation, including the user support and frequently used links like “home”, “settings” and “find and follow”. If I hunt for links to get back to where I started from, I find some navigation in the footer, along with a copyright date of 2007, rather than 2008. The only “home” link I found went to the homepage of the “Help” hub. If the way back “home” is on this busy the page, I didn’t want to hunt for it. Things have to be where I can see them without any effort.

Despite the fame Twitter has, it’s also an example of too much hoopla, too soon. If they even have Performance Testing Engineers, those people are battling every day to keep a site up that’s live and “in production” from crashing every hour. As Twitter users know, Twitter’s as fun to use as training a toddler to use the potty. Some days it works. Most days it doesn’t.

Lost in the Hub, Bub

I was hired to test a web site that’s famous around the world. It’s a gigantic site aimed at readers all over the world. Despite its credible reputation, the web site is clunky, chaotic, not consistent from page to page or hub to hub and has an alarming number of big ads on each page that make reading difficult.

It’s broken into categories, which are set up as “hubs”. Hubs are like rooms on a site with windows on the walls.

A typical hub is an About Us section where the hub’s “homepage” explains what’s interesting to see inside that hub, may contain a mission statement and devotes some space to proof of the company’s existence like a picture of the store or office.

Left side navigation takes visitors to the other “windows” in the room, such as press releases, media kit, or contact page.

Sometimes hub windows contain window panes, or another level. This means that if you click from the hub’s Homepage into the Contact page, you may see breadcrumb navigation to “Staff”, “Bio’s, and “Directions”.

On the famous web site I reviewed, there was a weak attempt to create hubs but it wasn’t finished. I couldn’t locate the way out of some hubs to the main site in some cases. I certainly couldn’t jump from hub to hub, or if I could move deeper into a hub, I became stuck there. There was little or no direction on how to escape or move backwards. They also made another common mistake, which is to remove all navigation from pages like privacy policies and terms.

I Love Navigation Cliffhangers

Most web sites are designed for forward momentum. This means if you land on their homepage, you’ll find key, top-level links to move inside the web site. What becomes less obvious is when you want to return to where you were, or move side to side from hub to hub without first requiring a click back to the main homepage first. Try not to force visitors to go home to reorient themselves or find a new hub to explore. This is especially handy advice for landing pages, which have their own requirements for navigation and usability.

Sub-navigation and breadcrumb navigation are planned out during the information architecture stage, not as a last resort. When navigation schemes are mapped out in accordance with IA there is less chance for cliffhangers. I love these. It’s when you get going on a site and you’re rolling along until suddenly you’re taken to a page that drops you off into the Unknown Internet Universe. Typically, the browser’s “Back” button has been disabled, making this trip all the more groovy.

Every web designer faces navigation hurdles. This is why user testing during the design phase or pre-production is so valuable. I grow frustrated with the number of stories I hear from the field by IT folks, programmers, project managers and QA Engineers whose companies completely ignore user testing and usability/accessibility design or standards. They’re not happy to be knowingly building a “piece of crap” and it boggles one’s mind when upper level management encourages them to do so.

The blindfolded students learned many lessons, as did their guide persons. As a user experience web site designer, you play the role of both.

Now, if we could just convince your blind managers and directors to get with the program, we’d have software that works when we want it to and web sites that never drop us off the side of the road.

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