Last week in my series on Web navigation design, I showed you how to let readers know where they are, where they've been, and where they're going. The next design principle is to provide context and to be consistent.
In a Web full of 550 billion documents, context is essential. Studies show that in the majority of cases, readers do not know exactly what content they need. Rather, they have a general idea.
Navigation presents the reader with documents of content that are interconnected. It guides them toward content that they might need but might not have been aware of.
Let's say that you go to the IBM or Dell Web site with the intention of buying a notebook computer, but you're not sure which model you want to buy. The site's navigation will quickly guide you to the section on notebooks, where the full product line will be presented in summary form. If you want to find out more about the Dell Inspiron, for example, the navigation will guide you to the Inspiron home page.
The links on the Inspiron home page include "Awards & Reviews." Now, you may not have thought about looking for this type of content when you started your search, but once you see the link, you may want to see what sort of reviews and rewards this computer has received.
Traditionally, when potential buyers examined a computer, a sales rep would casually inform the buyers if the computer had recently received an award from or a glowing review in a particular magazine. This vital work must now be done through a navigation approach that creates the best possible context.
When you are driving, you become acclimated not just to what the road signs say, but also to their size, shape, and color. If you are driving along following a set of signs that suddenly change shape, size, and color, your immediate response is one of confusion and hesitation. Thankfully, few countries change the design of their road signs from region to region or town to town. Not so on the Web, where navigation can change in an ad hoc manner, even within a particular Web site.
Readers often turn to navigation when they're confused or lost. Don't confuse them even more by displaying an inconsistent or unfamiliar navigation design. For example, if you decide to put your navigation menu on the left side of your home page, don't switch the navigation menu to the right side of the page in another section of your Web site.
Being consistent with language is critical for successful navigation. For example, don't have a "Home" link in one section of your Web site and a "Home page" link in another section. That will only confuse readers. Establish the language and terms you are going to use in your navigation approach, and use them consistently throughout each page of your Web site.
Treat your navigation and classification as if it were written in stone; otherwise, you risk confusing your regular readers (customers), and these are the people you should avoid confusing at all costs.
Think about it this way. You visit Dublin city center regularly. Your favorite clothes shop is situated on Grafton Street, which is right beside Trinity College. If the next time you head to Grafton Street you find that a new street with a whole new set of shops has been placed between Trinity College and Grafton Street, won't you feel somewhat disoriented?
People are, by nature, habitual and conservative. If every couple of months you change the structure and navigation of your Web site, you risk alienating your regular visitors who have gotten used to your previous navigation and structure.
Next week: The reader sees the Web as a single environment and wants navigation to be as similar as possible from Web site to Web site.
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