Navigating Through Analysis Paralysis

  |  May 7, 2001   |  Comments

Despite what many information architects believe, good navigation schemes have little to do with prospects' recall ability. Instead, what's at work is how humans handle choices. So, do you want to follow convention, or do you want to close more sales?

In last week's article, I spoke about the importance of keeping your site as simple as possible. You never want your prospects to be confused or frustrated. This is especially true when they are dealing with navigation.

Many designers and information architects plan their navigation based on George Miller's landmark research on recall tasks. His research concluded that the human memory system has a capacity of 7 1 2 chunks.

First of all, that research was done almost 50 years ago. Second, while Miller's research has stuck in people's minds, a lot of other research indicates that the number may be as small as 4, not 7. But even more important, designing good navigation for a Web site has little, if anything, to do with prospects' recall ability. The key, rather, is in how human psychology handles choices.

Where to Go, I Don't Know

It's Saturday night. You get together with a bunch of friends. You're the first to suggest, "Let's get something to eat!" Another friend pipes up and says, "What are you in the mood for?" How often do you hear those infamous words, "I don't know"? If someone had shouted, "Pizza or Mexican!" everyone would have had an immediate opinion. But when faced with too many choices, our brains seem to freeze. Instead of making one, we become paralyzed while thinking about which one to choose, and often end up not choosing at all.

The Alternate-Choice Close

It might sound counterintuitive, but the best way to make a sale is to limit the buyer's choices. An alternate-choice close presents the customer with a simple choice; regardless of which choice the customer makes, the sale is closed: "Will that be cash or charge?" "Do you want that in yellow or blue?" "Would delivery tomorrow be OK, or would Friday be better?"

Studies have shown, and experienced salespeople know, that if you ask simple yes/no questions, you're likely to get a "No," but if you offer customers a clear, simple choice, they are very likely to choose one of the options you offer, and you make the sale.

Now, you have to realize that every step in your navigation is a minisale, and you have to design it accordingly.

Getting Around

There are numerous navigation schemes. Hierarchical, global, supplemental, and embedded links are the most common.

Hierarchical navigation helps people keep track of how deep into the site they are (e.g., books/subjects/business). Global navigation schemes, such as tabs, help direct and orient the customer to what type of products is available (e.g., Books, Electronics, Music). Supplemental or local navigation allows users to get to related information within a category rather than between categories (e.g., Advertising: Web, TV, print, radio). This is particularly helpful when your visitor has landed on your site via a search engine but hasn't landed on quite the right page.

But from our work with clients, we've discovered that the navigation scheme important to actually closing more sales is the embedded-links scheme. And it's very easy to implement. Within the body of your (great) copy, you simply place links to the places you want prospects to go next. Of course, what works best on your site can be determined only by testing. And, naturally, embedded links are only one component of a complete navigation structure.

If embedded links are done well (a topic for another article), they will engage your users effectively as they browse within the "active window" of your site. The active window is the main area of your page, underneath or to the side of your main navigation. It is where you place your body text, display your products, and present your offer. It is also where you want to keep your visitors' eyes focused. If you properly engage them in this area by providing the right choices to click on, you persuade them to follow the path you want them to take. This is also why it is very important to keep a consistent look and feel around the active window.

The Power of Blue

Be sure to take advantage of conventions most of your prospects already understand. I am all for creativity, but when designing for the Internet, it's foolish to make your prospects learn quirks of your site design when what you want them to be doing is shopping.

John Rhodes, my friend at WebWord, wrote about population stereotypes. These are the long-term habits and well-ingrained knowledge we have about the world around us (Kantowitz & Sorkin, 1983). Ask anyone who has logged only a few hours of Internet surfing, "What color are hyperlinks?"

As John says, "The color blue for links is a very powerful population stereotype." When you break that stereotype by using a different color scheme, you undermine the usability and, ultimately, the "shopability" of your site. You actually hide your links instead of making them easy to find. On the flip side, people get really ticked off when something is blue and underlined yet is not a link. (Yes, I've seen blue, underlined text that does not function as a link -- absurd!)

They Want to Buy

Don't make it hard for your prospects to be able to find what they want and buy it. By choosing the right navigation scheme, you not only make the process easy for your customers, but also make it a process that actually influences the closing of more sales.


Bryan Eisenberg

Bryan Eisenberg is co-founder and chief marketing officer (CMO) of IdealSpot. He is co-author of the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, BusinessWeek, and New York Times best-selling books Call to Action, Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?, and Always Be Testing, and Buyer Legends. Bryan is a keynote speaker and has keynoted conferences globally such as Gultaggen,, Direct Marketing Association, MarketingSherpa, Econsultancy, Webcom, the Canadian Marketing Association, and others for the past 10 years. Bryan was named a winner of the Marketing Edge's Rising Stars Awards, recognized by eConsultancy members as one of the top 10 User Experience Gurus, selected as one of the inaugural iMedia Top 25 Marketers, and has been recognized as most influential in PPC, Social Selling, OmniChannel Retail. Bryan serves as an advisory board member of several venture capital backed companies such as Sightly, UserTesting, Monetate, ChatID, Nomi, and BazaarVoice. He works with his co-author and brother Jeffrey Eisenberg. You can find them at

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