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?


Neither Libraries Nor Information is Free

Oh The Future of the Library is still in question.   This time it’s Seth Godin weighing in.   I actually agree with most of what he has to say.   I think alot of what he thinks is shaped by an aged or narrow sample of libraries.   I find it kind of like saying ‘It’s over for Restaurants’ after getting poor service from an old-style greasy spoon that’s been around for 50 years.   It’s the future of ‘restaurant’.   Not ‘restaurants’.

Librarians have weighed in as well.   One of them is Sarah Glassmeyer.    I have to say I am disappointed in her response.    When it is fairly obvious that Seth is talking about Public Libraries, her response is to refute by reminding that we also have academic, legal and special libraries.   That’s pretty weak.   The latter libraries serve a specific purpose and are available for a specific audience.   I would not expect Seth to have a beef with Academic libraries, unless he had a beef with academics in general (which might be the case, but it’s kind of a different story).    Public Libraries have to stand on their own two feet, thank you.     We need to comfortably explain what we do in very specific terms.   We have to envision a future of service that meshes with reality.

For instance, Seth speak in particular about offering DVDs for rental and how this is a fairly uninspiring use for public libraries.    It’s a bit of a sham argument, actually because it offers flawed anecdotal evidence.   DVDs may circulate more often than other items, true, but they also have shorter borrowing times (they used to have 1/7 the allowed borrowing time at MPOW;  we just changed that to 1/3.) and tend to have larger fines when they are late.    In short, by nature every DVD we circulate will have the opportunity to be borrowed 7 times before a book gets returned.   Not to mention that DVDs tend to be on hold, so they are un-renewable, and so-on.

DVDs also act as a catalyst for other library uses.   It’s plain good old fashion solid business practice, like offering a coupon for Prime Rib Roast knowing that people will also pay full price for the horseradish, potatoes and string beans to go with it.   And, well, some of those DVDs are the popular renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and encourage reading (re-reading, even) just as well.

But enough about DVDs – we need to talk about the future of libraries.

Part of the problem is that a public library is not specifically about individuals, but a learning community.   Take, for example, the idea that we could just buy everyone a Kindle and be done with libraries.   At this time, the Kindle offers a selection of about 336,000 books.   As an individual, that is a huge collection of books to choose from, and almost certainly bound to improve my learning.   On a community level, 336,000 books is dismal.   We do not want or need a community that reads the same 336,000 books, and probably the same 336,000 books that will be yammered on about in the usual channels.    Maybe Amazon will fulfill this important community knowledge diversification need in the future, but I would suggest that they have no incentive to do so.   On some scale, for a good 25 years at least IMHO, communities will need to share their resources in an organized way for the interest of the community.   Some libraries will fulfill this need very well.   Others will not.   The former will succeed and flourish; the latter will die a slow and painful death (until another model emerges from the ashes).

(Notice that I haven’t brought up the many other issues with things Kindle-ish, like Jessamyn West has previously.)

In other words, this one idea about libraries (which covers about 50% of library work, I would say), while admittedly declining, still has a fairly good shelf-life on it.   I would also remind that no librarian in the 21st century is advocating for a faster horse here.   Public libraries are dropping those reference books like they were no tomorrow.   They’re also getting rid of those old books that no one is borrowing too.   Public Libraries are no archives.    We don’t keep artifacts on any large scale (although it’s a bit of a political thing to admit that we do actually throw books away when they’ve had their time.)

I haven’t brought up the plethora of other things that libraries can, have and continue to do.   For one (shameless self promotion) MPOW is hosting Podcamp Halifax, which (i think) strives to do precisely what Seth suggests is the right thing:  Train People to Take Intellectual Initiative.    Except it’s not really training.   It’s better.  It’s providing space, moments-in-time and opportunities for people to gather and train themselves.   Actually, training is not even the right word.    When a space is designed right, the learning is self-organized.   Learning is a natural human behavior, provided that barriers don’t get in the way.   Oh hell – Angela Mombourquette explains it all much better than I do.   In short, we need more unconferences in communities and public libraries are one avenue to help make sure these happen.

And you know what?   I’ve been talking about this for years.    My very first post (July 2006) is an interesting look at how to help people take intellectual initiative.    Not too long after that, I was talking about Open Space and The Law of Two Feet.   The way I see the future of public libraries then and now is still the same and Seth pretty much hits the nail on the [side of the] head.   It’s not about training.   The public, as a rule, doesn’t want training per se.   They would go to school for that stuff.   What they want are places to learn.    Places that have, among other things, DVDs to borrow.   (It’s always nice to bring a little bit of library home with you. )  Places with a little bit of friendly nudging to keep you motivated about learning.   Sometimes with a bit of facilitation.   Sometimes with a bit of structure.   Other times but just leaving them the heck alone to read in a nice quiet spot.   No one is filling this niche right now on any grand scale.    It’s a market failure.    That’s why we need public funds to fill it.   For now and into the future.

Finally, this article needs a shout out because Erin Downey speaks my mind about information and learning as well.

Podcamp Halifax: The Blog


Yes, it is true.   Podcamp Halifax has its own blog!   Now you can get the information you need from the podcamping source, instead of from a measly old librarian blog.


The Podcamp Halifax Website
The Podcamp Halifax Website


One conversation we’d like to start having is what do you want your podcamp sessions to look like?   This is a good time to start throwing out the ideas!