Configurable Navigation Systems

What drives me nuts is how hard web designers make it for people to find their way around a web site.

Most web sites are about as focused and convenient to navigate as the bargain shoe rack. Instead of helping me find my way around, instead of offering functionality and features that help me get where I’m going and find what I’m looking for, they lay everything out in a big mishmash of buttons and text links, then wish me luck getting there.

There are many reasons for this. For instance:

  1. Web designers are, by and large, computer users, and they mistakenly assume web visitors are, as well.

  2. Designers still operate under the assumption that people come into a site from a home page where navigation instructions are posted (in fact, only about 50 percent of visitors enter sites from that page).
  3. The lack of standards doesn’t make it any easier, either. A software application follows an expected menuing layout from application to application (File Edit Help, etc.) On the web, every navigation system is completely different (consider, for example, how many different terms are used for corporate information – About Us, Company, The Team, Corporate).

Now, the prospect of standardization is remote at best. Nobody, from individual companies to the W3C, will ever be able to impose a standard interface on the web – any more than Nordstrom and Bloomingdale will ever lay their stores out in the same way. But at the stores, at least you have people who will help you find what you’re looking for.

On the web, you’re on your own.

So it’s up to you, the web designer, to make this easy. One way to do that is through configurable navigation systems.

Consider your site as made up of a series of paths. The site architects and designers are in control of those paths, and in fact, are the most qualified individuals to determine the paths people might want to take – just as well schooled sales people at Nordstrom are most qualified to suggest what items a customer might want to see, based on what that customer tells them.

So, if someone shows up at, let’s say, your product technical specification page (brought in through a search engine link, for example) you can make two quick assumptions:

  1. They’re interested in your product.

  2. They’re at the wrong page to get the needed information about the product.

Why the wrong page? In order for anyone to make a sensible decision about whether to add you to a short list of potential vendors, they need to know a fair share of information about you – history, client base, locations, process, pricing models, product availability, implementation and support and so on.

A tech spec sheet just doesn’t provide that information. At the same time, to expect that people are either going to go on the endless hunt for all that information – which is likely stored in a lot of different “main” site areas – or that they even know what it is they need to know – is to make the wrong assumption. You need to help them.

The Site Navigation Configurator

My suggestion is to develop a navigation configuration system for them. Here’s the quick functional specification.

When a visitor shows up, present them with a page that allows them – through simple categorized check boxes – to make decisions about what they want to see. For instance, a simple configurator could ask them to select the type of information wanted, the order in which they want to see it, and the format in which they want it delivered.

They could then make a quick series of decisions saying, just for instance, that:

  1. They want to see product, corporate, financial, and training information.

  2. They want to see it in that order.
  3. They want the product info in PDF, the corporate and financial info in HTML, and the training information in Real Media video.

(Incidentally, the choices they make are qualification factors when evaluating them as a prospect, once the process moves forward.)

From there, it’s a simple whack of the Submit button and a quick access of your database, and within a few seconds, the visitor is presented with a page of links – controlled by site-delivered Forward and Back buttons – that present them exactly the information they need in exactly the order and format in which they want it.

More advanced techniques are possible as well, for instance:

  1. It’s possible to develop, on-the-fly, all the desired pages as a single PDF file.

  2. It’s possible to recognize where people are coming from when they enter your site. A simple Javascript can read referrer data and make decisions as to what page to direct a visitor to, based on that data. From there, an even more focused configurator is possible.

Now, there’s nothing magical about this – nor expensive. It’s all possible to do right now, with simple database functionality and a little imagination.

And by doing this, you take navigation out of bargain basement chaos and into controlled customer service. You move your site experience from the 99 cent store to Nordstrom’s.

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