Going beyond standard navigation
January 5, 2005 at 10:13 AM
Henrik Olsen has a good article on Navigation blindness on GUUUI. This is something I have been waiting to hear more on. In fact just the other day I was trying to explain why I thought it was important to have regions within a page's content area dedicated to mimicking the links in the navigation that point to pages under the current one (read: related information). This article by Henrik underscores that point for me. I'd even take it a step further in that because users no longer navigate a site by conventional means (see Home Alone? How Content Aggregators Change Navigation and Control of Content by Joshua Porter for more context here), it is even more imperative that we help guide them down the available paths by elements beyond just navigation bars and menus... we need to use the content area for navigation to things within context.
Navigation is content. Period. Often the most important content as well. It's great to see more people come to this conclusion! I "saw the light" on this issue when reading "Don't make me think" some years ago. By treating navigation as content, you immediately solve some navigational problems on medium-to-large scale websites (where the information hierarchy is deeper than a couple of levels). For instance expanding menues are only good for 2-3 levels. Beyond that most sites are stuck with navigation within the content area anyway. I say drop the expanding menu, and present the navigation as content within the belonging context (beneath the header which defines it). An example which illustrates why navigation is content (to the user that is) is when a website tells you after reading through all the content within your context, to look in a menu to the left of the content to find navigational options for your current context: http://tinyurl.com/49jzv Sentences like "To learn more about this topic, choose from the menu on the left..." cracks me up everytime :) A sentence like this only shows that your design has failed.
Tomm: I agree with your points here. I think this also relates to wayfinding. But on the subject of content based navigation, I have found that sometimes it only adds to the confusion. This is more attributed to poor content strategies than poor navigation or poor content. Microsoft's site is a prime example of this... specifically deeper pages, like 3rd level and deeper, the home page has its own navigation problems.
Website search feature + properly structured hierarchy, that is by default hidden from the user, but available through something that we know as "site map" (which is not fully utilized yet) can solve many problems. As a matter of fact I want to try this on my next site. I am sure it can also help search engine ratings as well, since many articles will be well interlinked. I am sure that is the way HTTP + HTML were designed in the first place, it's just people tried to adopt the web to print schematics (sections, chapters, etc...) and it ruined the whole point of the web.
Before I finished reading your post, I had already come to the same conclusion. Contextual being the key-word for 2005. It would be idealistic to provide 'see also' / 'further reading' snippets, or maybe even just a dynamic way of introducing topics based on keywords. Im sure we've all seen them publications with special ad-words presenting relevant tooltips? Although i'm concerned about having links all over the shop, especially internal links, as it makes the user wonder if they've visited a particular part of the site before and end up in some kind of simulated bottomless pit of link-following. As an experienced web-user, I am always almost aware of how deep I am trawling into sites, and my eye always seems to catch onto stuff in pages left behind that I would like to visit again. I'm just rambling now, and there's work to be done today. Just food for thought. I will have to get back to this later :)
Chris: Exactly. I think this is what I was trying to articulate about the Microsoft site. I worked on one of the sub sections recently and found that they had this "related" in-line type of navigation which took you to somewhere else within the same sub section... the confusing part was 1/2 the time you never knew if you had already been there. I blame that on poor wayfinding (the default Microsoft.com API for navigation does not accommodate proper wayfinding) and poor content (long winded marketing talk, very little sustenance, and not very streamlined).