Ryan’s Rules for Website Navigation

It should be intuitive.’   ‘The user should not have to hunt for information.’ Focus on the user.’

Yes.   So, ‘yes’.    If everyone can agree on these things, why don’t we see it in practice?    As usual, the Devil is in the details.    Making a website (or any other kind of software) usable is harder than it seems.     While you’d think great designer can handle all usability problems, it takes more than just usability ‘chops’ to create a great website.    Even with testing, there are a variety of factors that can influence a website’s design – even when everyone has the user at heart.    So, here are a few tips I have to help a little.    For the sake, of brevity I am going to focus in on navigation.

Fewer Labels is Always Better

It works like this:   if you see a relevant path on a website, you will click on it.    If you do not, you will take your next best guess.    Every label does not have to be as explicit as you think it does.   Remember always the Pareto Principle / The 80-20 rule.    Of all the content that gets submitted to a library website, only 20% is vital to the user.    That 20% needs clear, concise & obvious navigation.

Do not let the other 80% get in the way of the vital 20%.    If someone has to make a guess, a navigation system of 4-5 elements is much, much better than a navigation of 25+ items (number taken from a website I am currently responsible for – ‘do as I say …’ ).   You can cheat a little by having different levels of navigation (eg. About, Contact, Jobs etc. in small at the top or bottom), but most website navigations I see out there go way beyond cheat.

Text, Text, Text

Over and over again, people think that promotion via images is important.    It is, if your user base is 10 years of age or younger.   Images get ignored by the user, and often by search engines as well.   A single word or two, explaining where the link will take you is fine.

In fact, I once took an image link off the front page of a website, gave it a logical name and put it in a less obvious place and the use *increased*.

End the Drop-Down Madness!

WordPress.com, I’m talking to you!     Updating my blog has become hell ever since you changed the navigation to include drop-downs.    I click on the wrong things all the time, then I struggle to get back where I was.    Fortunately, this is only for the back-end interface.    For a front-page interface, drop-downs are even more hellish.

Drop downs came into existence because someone came up with the stupid ‘3 clicks or I’m gone’ axiom.     Everyone came to the conclusion that we needed to design sites to reduce clicks, and drop-downs reduced clicks.    However, the real problem was usability.    Drop-downs reduced clicks, but did not increase usability.    It was a zero-value trade-off.    Don’t use them.

Do Not Believe Everything You Read On the Internet

There’s alot of baloney on the internet, believe it or not.    Some people will tell you that your navigation should use verbs; others nouns.   Some people will decry scrolling; others will insist that the blog is the way to go.   Following anyone’s tips is fine, but they should not be used at the expense of common sense.    For instance, avoiding scrolling for the user may be impossible if you consider that some of your users may still be using 800 by 600 screen resolution or less.

A Link Should Send You to the Place You Expect It

If I click on a link that says ‘find a book’ it should help me find a book.    It should not be a list of tutorials on how to find books.    Call it ‘tutorials’ instead (and then do some serious thinking about whether this is a 20% or an 80% thing).

Don’t Be Cute

If you want to provide a way for people to contact you, call it “Contact” or “Contact Us” not, “Get the Skinny” or something else more barbarous.

The Designer Must Decide

In a profession of information experts, everyone thinks they know how best to design a website.    The problem is that each department sees a different user, and wants to make that user happy.    Reference desk people see the person struggling to access a database.    Cataloguers see the user that can get into the system and download every book they need like it was no tomorrow.   Community workers see people struggling to learn a new language or afraid to walk into the library in the first place.    All are important users.   All have unique needs.

Unfortunately, while we want to make these users happy, trying to make everyone happy at the same time results in a website that puts everything but the kitchen sink on the front page — confusing everyone and pleasing no one.    Alternately, we focus on the users who have a negative experience in brief moment in time – so many factors can play into that complaint (the user’s mood at the time, his or her expectations about library service vs what libraries actually offer etc.).     Of course, we need to take user complaints seriously – but is web design really about solving everyone’s unique problem?   I argue no.    Web design is finding out about how human beings interact with computers / digital media and applying that knowledge to improve access.    A good website cannot solve anyone’s particular information need.    It can, however, make the act of discovery more enjoyable.

All this leads to my conclusion – let the designer decide.    He or she may make a mistake about a particular user’s need (and this will be evident through user testing etc.) but he or she will do a better job of improving access than a committee of people all trying to please their particular vision of the user.

Final Words

If you have been paying attention through the tips, you might have noticed a common thread – the problems website designs encounter are often not design problems at all – they are management, consensus-building and coordination problems.    There is always a delicate balance between alienating your stakeholders and having a process be so participatory that it kills the design.   I would argue that more good designs are killed than bad designs improved.     The killing happens over time as priorities change and band-aids are applied to address minor non-essential issues coming from a variety of different places.

What tips do you have to improve navigation of websites?

2 thoughts on “Ryan’s Rules for Website Navigation

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