In my previous posts on information architecture components, I mentioned that information architecture components can be divided into four categories: organization systems, labeling systems, navigation systems, and search systems. I described organization systems and labeling systems in my previous posts. In today's post, I am going to describe navigation systems.
Getting lost is associated with confusion and frustration. While getting lost on a web site is not a life or death situation, it is confusing and frustrating for users when they can't find what they are looking for. Navigation systems support browsing. When users are not sure what they are looking for, they are not going to use search, they are going to browse.
Navigation systems can be divided into two main sub-systems: embedded navigation systems and supplemental navigation systems.
Embedded Navigation Systems
Embedded navigation systems include global navigation systems, local navigation systems, and contextual navigation systems. Global navigation systems and local navigation systems are also called structural navigation.
Global (site-wide) Navigation Systems
Global navigation system is present on every page throughout a site. It is usually a navigation bar at the top of each page. Most global navigation bars provide a link to the home page. Many provide a link to the search function. These site-wide navigation systems allow direct access to key areas and functions of the site, no matter where the user travels in the site. This system has a huge impact on usability of the site. They should be the subject to iterative user-side testing.
Local Navigation Systems
Local navigation systems allow users to explore the immediate area. These navigation systems provide access to the content on a specific page of the site. They are aligned with the local content. They are usually placed on the left hand-side of a page.
Contextual Navigation Systems
Contextual navigation systems provide links specific to a particular page, document, or object. They can be represented as "see also" links which connect users to related products, services, articles, topics, etc. These systems are also called associative navigation. They answer questions such as "how do I?", "what is next?", "what else have you got?" Moderation is the primary rule for creating these links. Used in access, they can add clutter and confusion.
Implementing Embedded Navigation
The main challenge is to balance the flexibility of movement with the danger of overwhelming the user with too many options. Key to success is to recognize that global, local, and contextual navigation exists together on most pages. So, they they are integrated effectively, they complement each other. When they are present together on one page they should not overwhelm the user and drown out the content.
Supplemental Navigation Systems
Supplemental navigation systems include site maps, indexes, and guides. They are external to the basic hierarchy of a web site and provide complementary ways of finding content. Search also belongs to this category but it is so important subject that I will cover it in a separate post. These systems are also called utility navigation as they connect pages and features that help users to use the site itself. They can also include sign-in pages, profile pages, credit card information, etc.
Site Maps provide a broad view of the content in the web site and facilitates random access to segmented portions of that content. They can use text-based links to provide the user with direct access to pages of the site.
A site map is most suitable for web sites that have very good hierarchical organization. If the architecture is not strongly hierarchical, and index or alternative visual representation might be better. For a small site with only few pages, a site-map is not necessary.
Rules for creating site maps:
- reinforce the information hierarchy so the user becomes increasingly familiar with how the content is organized;
- facilitate fast, direct access to the content of the site for those users who know what they want;
- avoid overwhelming the user with too much information.
Site index presents keywords or phrases alphabetically without representing the hierarchy. They work well for users who already know the name of the item they are looking for.
Large, complex web sites often require both a site map and a site index. The site map reinforces the hierarchy and encourages the exploration, while the site index bypasses the hierarchy and facilitates known item finding. For small sites, a side index alone may be sufficient.
A major challenge in indexing a web site is the level of granularity. Do you index each page or set of pages? The answer depends on what users are looking for. You need to know your audience and understand their needs. You can analyze search logs to see what users are searching for.
Guides include guided tours, tutorials, micro-portals focused around a specific audience, topic, or task. Guides supplement the existing means of navigating and understanding site content. They often serve as tool for introducing new users to the content and functionality of the site. They can also serve as marketing tools for restricted access sites.
Guides usually feature linear navigation but hypertextual navigation should also be available to provide additional flexibility.
Rules for creating guides:
- the guide should be short;
- at any point, the user should be able to exit the guide.;
- navigation should be located in the same spot on every page so that users can easily step back and forth through the guide;
- the guide should be designed to answer questions;
- screenshots should be crisp, clear, and optimized, with enlarged details of key features;
- if the guide includes more than a few pages, it may need its own table of contents.
Personalization involves serving up tailored pages to the user based upon a model of the behavior, needs, or preferences of that user. It is used as an example in human resources systems involving giving a user options to view his/her options in compensation or benefits.
Customization involves giving the user direct control over some combination of presentation, navigation, and content options. Yahoo is a good example of customization. It allows user to customize their pages.
Personalization and customization can be used to refine existing navigation systems.
Main Considerations for Designing Navigation Systems
When designing a navigation system, it is important to consider the environment the site will exist in. You always need to consider the context.
The navigation system should present the structure of the hierarchy in a clear, consistent manner, and indicate the user current location which usually is fulfilled through the use of a breadcrumb. Make sure it is correct.
User should be able to easily move between pages. However, balance the advantages of flexibility with the danger of clutter.
Navigation systems should be designed with care to complement and reinforce the hierarchy by providing added context and flexibility.
And finally, here is the "stress test" of your navigation system:
1. Ignore the home page and jump directly into the middle of the site.
2. For each random page, can you figure out where you are in relation to the rest of the site? What major section are you in? What is the parent page?
3. Can you tell where the page will lead you next? Are the links descriptive enough to give you a clue what each is about? Are the links different enough to help you choose one over another, depending on what you want to do?