navigation, structure, and usability for web design
Web sites have sometimes been described in terms of ‘generations’. David Siegel for instance describes how first generation sites were rapidly thrown together with no greater ambition than to get pages of HTML code onto the Web. The second generation added graphics, started to be concerned with page layout [even though HTML code is not designed for that purpose] and often added eye-popping special effects. Third generation sites have brought some of these excesses under control, and are designed to make the user experience more meaningful. Web Navigation is emphatically third generation.
There’s no doubt that clever designers have managed to produce some visually stunning Web pages – but many information architects are now beginning to ask questions such as “Can visitors find their way around the site?” and “Is this site achieving its purpose?” The eye candy effects of flashy graphics often mask a lack of content and an incoherent maze of links which visitors are glad to leave quickly via the nearest exit. Jennifer Fleming’s Web Navigation is a serious and articulate plea for intelligent Web site design, and it is based on principles which owe more to information theory and coherent structure than to the luminous-glamour school of graphics-based design.
Like most good designers, she insists on a user-centred rather than client-centred approach to web design. What’s the difference? you might ask. Well, intelligent designers are now beginning to realise that web sites are often created to impress the commissioning clients, rather than the people who will be using them. Men in suits will applaud spiffy graphics when a new site is revealed at a presentation – but they will probably never need to log on again.
The book’s structure reflects the clarity of her purpose. There are six chapters on the foundations of navigation design, then in the second part an analysis of successful sites. There are four appendices: technical tips, a glossary of navigational terms, a list of web resources, and a bibliography. The accompanying CD comes with trial versions of software (including the highly praised Dreamweaver) and it has a marvellous ‘netography’ with listings of articles, web sites, and online resources covering navigation, usability and testing, organisation of information, information design, document markup and scripting. [I loaded the disk, browsed the sites she recommends, and all the links were working.]
Her advice is to provide clear, simple, and consistent navigational aids – and she offers a particularly strong warning against using metaphors such as the office or the supermarket [though curiously, the CD uses icons]. Navigation that works should:
- be easily learned
- remain consistent
- provide feedback
- appear in context
- offer alternatives
- be economic in action and time
- provide clear visual messages
- use clear understandable labels
- be appropriate to site’s purpose
- support user’s goals and behaviour
Now that’s an important free lesson for you! She is in favour of any interactivity, such as rollovers (‘OnMouseOver’) which provide feedback, and is sceptical of the ‘Back’ button on the grounds that users might enter a site at any page. Where would they be going ‘back’ to? She also raises other interesting navigational questions, such as ‘where will you be when you’ve finished reading a page, and where will you wish or need to go?’
She recommends multiple navigational routes and aids, plus guidance. For instance, a site might have a framed and ‘no-frames’ version, a graphics and no graphics version. It will certainly have navigation hot spots at the top and bottom of every page, maybe a contents list in left-hand frame, plus icons, labels, and anything else which helps users find their way around.
One of the interesting features of her approach is that she illustrates her argument with detailed reference to the work of other ‘information architects’ such as Jakob Nielsen, Clement Mok, Edward Tufte, and David Siegel. The reader is thereby presented with a range of approaches to this relatively new subject. There are lots of bibliographic suggestions and URLs in side-bars on the page – and those I checked were all up-to-date, which is an important feature in such a fast-changing medium.
It’s a book aimed at professionals. For instance, her descriptions of the site design process assume that there will be teams of designers in sessions at a corporate level using flipcharts, video recordings, and even team-working software. There’s lots on brainstorming and chunking in what are now called ‘focus groups’. But these principles could be followed by what I suspect is more likely to be the average reader – somebody working in a spare room at home.
This is a book for people who want to take web design seriously. It’s significant that she spends so much time discussing the thoughtful planning, research, and testing of a site, rather than the creation of flashy effects and animated gimmicks which adorn so many KEWL sites. She has powerful and revealing arguments in favour of a consistent design process (so that the arbitrary element of success or failure can be removed). This is fairly obvious when you think about it – but that’s true of many good ideas.
She includes a full account of professional designers at work, with pointers to the resources they use – such as David Siegel’s free downloadable ‘profiling’ materials at www.secretsites.com for instance.
This is the business studies version of web design manuals, packed with thought-provoking information on determining user goals and expectations. She describes the use of personal interviews, people ‘shadowing’ users throughout the working day, and ‘disposable camera studies’ where users record what they find interesting. Not many individuals will have the resources to be so thorough, and sometimes the ‘feedback-usability-testing’ approach makes this all seem like a science rather than the sales-pitch that it is – as if we can predict how many people will come to our site to buy widgets.
In the second half of the book her notions are put to work analysing the navigational methods and structure at sites built for shopping, entertainment, learning, and community services. This struck me as slightly less interesting than the first part, but still worth reading for the revealing tips and guidance notes embedded in her analysis. The observations, as before, are that successful sites are customer-oriented, and that they give extra consideration to online customers because they lack the navigational support provided during comparable user experiences in libraries, airports and shopping malls.
If there is a weakness in her examinations, it’s that these are often not much more than descriptions of sites – though they are nevertheless well-illustrated mini-lectures, with plenty of screen captures. For instance, she heaps praise on Amazon.com for their search facility and one-click ordering system. However, this doesn’t take into account that the company, despite its multi-million dollar turnover, hasn’t actually made a profit so far.
It’s worth noting that a lot of what she says about helping users through the layers of a site is based on the US-centred assumption that people are going to spend a lot of time browsing – because they have free local telephone calls. But European (certainly UK) users will not have such luxuries. They’ll hit a site, search for what they’re looking for, then disconnect quickly. This economically-driven difference in user behaviour should be taken into account by anyone theorising about navigation, browsing, and web design.
But there are many good tips offered en passant – including some which might seem obvious, but which are often ignored by site designers. For instance, I’ve noticed that in the UK, quangos and government departments are very often reluctant to display their postal address [possibly reflecting the arrogant nature of these organisations].
But she insists that
Making your street address, phone number, and email address easily available is not only about completing an online sales pitch…It’s about other elusive qualities: trust and community.
Similarly, many UK universities would do well to heed her advice on making themselves more accessible and well-presented. How many times have you visited a university site and found no lists of courses on offer or staff who teach them? She points to the short-sightedness of this approach:
A large percentage of visitors to a university site are applicants for admission, or are thinking of becoming applicants…If a university can answer their questions fairly easily, it bodes well for the entire process. A positive experience on the Web – especially for college applicants, who tend to make decisions on gut feelings – is a powerful factor in decision-making.
It’s good that she chooses different (and challenging) types of sites to analyse. Searching for information is quite a different matter to being entertained or pushing round a virtual shopping trolley. The section on information sites [Lycos, Computers.com] is particularly interesting, because she forces us to think about different types of questions which might be asked of a site, and the different approaches to searching users develop.
Until recently, just providing information via the Web was a laudable pursuit. It was enough to be one of the forward-thinking few who recognised the power of the Web for mass communication. Those days are gone, replaced with a new challenge: providing increasingly complex layers of information, and making it all seem simple.
Very near the end of the book she presents a simple formula for successful sites. Aspirant site designers would do themselves a favour by writing her tips on Post-It notes and sticking them on their monitors:
- keep every page below 20K
- recycle headers
- keep graphics small and simple
Jennifer Fleming has a background in library and information science, and her advice and observations strike me as more seriously well-founded than most of the web design manuals I have ever seen. This is a wonderfully rich and thought-provoking study which anybody analysing or building web sites should put on their list of essential reading.
© Roy Johnson 2000
Jennifer Fleming, Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience, Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 1998, pp.253 plus CD-ROM, ISBN: 1565923510