The Battle Between Usability and Creativity
On the web, be it on an internal or an external page, there are two types of web sites; the well structured and the dead. With so many available alternatives just a mouse click away, sites can’t afford to be poorly organized, nor can they write off a thirty-second download time as a “necessary evil”. More so than glitter, glamour or an expansive image gallery, the most important term when composing web navigation is “usability”. And that usability is determined by the characteristics and needs of the audience, not the suits at the top of the food chain or the web weary tech-heads behind the site’s programming.
A good navigation system breeds familiarity, it lends identity, it recognizes history. Users should feel comfortable with this navigation system, not intimidated by the mere idea of learning how it works. They should know exactly where they are in the scheme of things, and how they got there. The corporate logo should appear on every page in a limited capacity, serving as both a reminder of where they’re working and a last second “reset” button, linking back to the site’s home page. A sense of identity should find its way into the navigation, be it through a font choice, an image or a way of speaking, and this identity should stay true throughout the rest of the site’s pages. A good navigation system should bow before the lessons the print medium has learned before it. While a page on the web requires vastly different specifications and rules than a book or encyclopedia, the basic premise remains the same. Those who worked to establish the laws of print organization should not have toiled in vain. As with any new medium, it’s easy to get caught up in all the bells and whistles of the digital frontier, but one shouldn’t let that distract them from the dire need for a functional page layout.
In designing any new navigation system, one must consider the needs of the two distinct methods of information gathering and task completion on the World Wide Web; “Known Item” and “Casual Browsing”. A known item user knows exactly what they want, and what to do once they’ve arrived. A good navigation should get them there quickly and easily, with little to no guesswork involved. Serving as a counterpoint, casual browsers have little idea what they’re looking for. They generally bounce their way around the subject headings until they latch onto something that looks interesting and ride with it for a while. While the two styles are really quite different, they actually work almost hand in hand. A known item user will often become a casual browser once they’ve finished their work, and a casual browser will sometimes switch into known item mode once they’ve grabbed hold of something really good.
There are several ways of organizing information to maximize known item searching and casual browsing. Be it alphabetical, geographical, chronological or an ambiguous creation unique to this site, there’s always something to suit the site’s needs. Something else to consider is just how skilled or unskilled the average user of this navigation system will be. If the majority of users have some sort of experience working with the internet, then the navigation itself can be a bit more expansive. More options can sneak into the final structure, both giving the users more options and making the interface more useful.
Probably the most important issue navigation designers have to deal with is the overall functionality of their interface. To be functional, navigation must be both focused and comprehensive. One page should not feature twenty-five links to random subsections across the site, but it must not leave anything out either. In the world of the web, a discrete unit of information is much more valuable than a mountain of text. Never describe in twelve words what can be summed up in two.
In keeping with that, the manner in which categories are described and organized can affect the way users read and employ this navigation. A corporation that emphasizes informality in the office would be contradicting themselves by using sterile, rigid language when describing their site’s subsections. Once established, the tone used in one area of navigation should be used consistently throughout the rest of the site. Consistency breeds familiarity, and familiarity leads to ease of use.
When organizing links in a site’s navigation, the areas should appear from the top in order of importance. Though large monitors have become more and more common in the last few years, many users still employ 800x600 screens, in addition to those that rarely stretch their web browser to fill the full screen. One way or another, only the top four inches of a page are guaranteed to appear when a page first loads. If a link is below that upper four inches, the chances of its being read are more than cut in half, as users will likely follow one of the earlier options before they’ll take the time to scroll down further to see what else is available. Even those that do scroll will occasionally find themselves confused, as they will never see all their options on the screen at one time. Users have enough to think about without being forced to remember the navigation options that were just scrolled out of view.
A useful tool in familiarizing users with the structure of the site is to utilize “bread crumbs”, or trails on each page in the system. These show the user exactly where they are in the site’s hierarchy, and make it easier for them to remember how they got to the current page. For the most part, these trails should be used sparingly, only listing the current location and every step they took along the way. In some rare instances, however, the trail could encompass the entire site, listing not only the choices users made on the way, but other options they could have selected as well.
Once the navigation’s organization has been started, the actual look, feel and design should come closely behind. By definition, design is predictable organization. After a few hours of experience with the site, users should know exactly where something can be found almost subconsciously. While bad design is easy to point out, good design is fluid and transparent. It doesn’t get in the way, and thus remains largely unnoticed. There is a time and a place for wild, artistic design and it is not the internet of 2003.
A strong enough emphasis really can’t be placed on the importance of functionality over flashiness on today’s web. Never has this point been better illustrated than today, with the almost daily release of new plug-ins, software and HTML variations. As a general rule of thumb, it is best to wait one to two years before integrating some of this new media into a site, if at all. This waiting period gives the men and women who frequent the site a chance to download the said plug-in and become experienced with it, in addition to giving the actual software developers time to clear up any bugs that may have arisen since its initial release.
With that said, there does remain a need for good design on the web, even in the most minimal of navigation structures. While a site’s users aren’t likely to come back if they have trouble performing a simple operation, they probably won’t even try in the first place if the colors are hideous and the text is left strewn about haphazardly.
As I mentioned before, the overall screen size for the average internet browser is really quite small, giving web developers close to six inches of width with which to work, and even less height. Considering these visitors have come not for the navigation, but for the content to which the navigation leads, a nav system’s physical size should be as small as possible. The said content deserves the lion’s share of the available screen space, and anything else only serves as a distraction.
Use of color and images should be sparing at best, and should not interfere with users’ employment of the navigation itself. Occasionally, a small icon is acceptable to help more experienced users scan the interface, but such images should be kept small, few and far between. All text must be easily legible, for obvious reasons. A navigation system is hardly any use if its visitors can’t see to use it in the first place. Anything that would attract a user’s attention away from the interface, such as a distracting background image or non-contrasting text and background colors, should be kept far, far away from the navigation system.
All of a navigation layout’s link titles should be composed in as few words as possible, to help keep things brief and concise. For example, the words “a”, “an” and “the” should be left off, as they are extraneous. In essence, navigation links should read as mini-billboards. They don’t need to be grammatically correct, so long as they get the point across quickly and reliably to the users.
Of course, once a navigation system is up and running, the job is only half complete. Any good site keeps logs of its use, and there remains a strong reason for this. There is no better way to improve an interface’s usability than to see how it works in the field and then use those results to help build a stronger, more effective system. With that said, the use of a log or site tracker should mean more than just a basic number of hits, including and excluding reloads. No interface is 100% perfect 100% of the time, but by paying attention to which areas seem to be giving users the most problems and which areas are providing the best results, a good navigation team can work towards creating the most universally legible interface possible in any given case.
©2003 Sean Lamberger, republished with permission from the author. Check out Sean's web page at http://www.drqshadow.com.
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