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Web Navigation Design Principles: Part 5

  |  May 17, 2001   |  Comments

No matter how good the navigation design, there will always be people who get confused, especially on large Web sites. Here's how to help your site users find what they want.

For large Web sites, no matter how good the navigation design, there will always be people who get confused. A reader should never be more than one click away from being able to get help, either from a customer service representative (or someone else at the organization) or a Help section. A Help section is of particular importance when a reader needs to do an advanced search or carry out a complex task, such as make a purchase.

Support the Reader

One way to support readers is to help them avoid making obvious errors. For example, if a form asks readers what country they're from, having them select from a drop-down list of country names is better than having them type in the name. If readers make a mistake, help them isolate where the mistake was made. For example, if readers incorrectly fill out a 30-field form, don't have a response that says, "Some fields in your form were not filled out correctly." Be more specific. Instead, say, "It seems that your email address has not been entered correctly."

Remember, many readers are unfamiliar with the Web, and even those with experience can get reticent, particularly when they are asked to input credit-card details or when a certain process takes a long time. Always strive to make the process as simple and foolproof as possible. Explain every single step in a precise, straightforward, and friendly manner. If they carry out an action, always give them feedback: "Thank you. Your order has been accepted."

While it is essential to give readers as much feedback as possible, it is equally important to encourage feedback from your readers. Constantly encourage readers to tell the organization what their experience was like on the site. Allow readers to rate a particular piece of content they have just read by displaying for them a simple rating chart (e.g., 1 to 10, with 10 being excellent; or Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor). Allow readers to easily inform someone else of site content they value by providing an "Email this story" option.

Don't Mislead the Reader

You never want to bring readers down a particular navigation path only to surprise them with something unexpected. It is not uncommon, particularly with American Web sites, to go through the purchase process and find that the company ships only within the United States. If this is the case, inform readers as early as possible in the purchase process in clear and prominent language.

Avoid asking readers to carry out tasks that are impossible or very difficult to perform. A classic example is forcing all readers to fill out a ZIP code regardless of whether ZIP codes are used in that reader's country. Avoid offering the reader contact details she can't use. If you wish to deal with customers outside the United States, for example, don't offer them 800 numbers that they can't ring.

Never underestimate the ability of an average, intelligent person to make what may look to a designer like the most obvious of mistakes. In life, it is often what is most obviously right that we avoid doing and what is most obviously wrong that we can't help but do. Make your Web navigation "so simple even an adult can understand it."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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