Back to Basics: Logical Site Navigation

March 31, 2009

Crafting a logical navigational structure is one of the most effective ways of making your web site inviting, user friendly, and useful. 

Navigational cues like this? Not helpful!

The following approaches help ensure that visitors can readily find pertinent information on your site:

  1. Make your navigational categories clear, consistent, and descriptive.  Sounds obvious, but AxisPortals too often sees sites that include “Contact Us” links that offer very little in the way of contact information, “About Us” links that shed precious little light on the purpose or philosophy of the organization, and “Our Products” links that offer practically every sort of advice and reflection under the sun, but do not lead to a helpful list of actual products.  Clarity matters.  Think of your navigational links or buttons as road signs, and proceed accordingly.  If a road sign says “Our Team,” then it should lead to pictures and descriptions of your team members.  If it says “Our Products,” then product pictures and descriptions should surely be in the offing.  Navigation is all about predictability.  “Main Street” should include the Post Office, the Barber Shop, a Drug Store, and maybe the Hardware Store.  “Industrial Way” should include foundries, factories, and heavier industries than those found on Main Street.  Just so with navigation.  When it comes to finding our way around in new places, we’re all traditionalists.  Stick with the clear and predictable when devising the road signs for your site.
  2. Ensure that visual devices such as rollover and flash effects are used sparingly and complemented with  accessible textual cues and pointers.  Sometimes, we create flashy effects because we can, because they’re new and attention getting, and because bells and whistles so neatly demonstrate our technical skill.  AxisPortals has, historically, been quite as guilty of this as anyone.   Ultimately, though, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as a visually appealing site that’s nigh on impossible to navigate successfully.  Indeed, we’ve known for a long time that fussy splash pages and flash features tend to annoy web readers, driving them away in droves.  So, it’s best to keep things simple.  Non-fussy CSS text rollovers with color changes help readers keep tabs on where they are and where they’re going, look sharp, and don’t detract from the clarity of text markers.  When we do choose to employ somewhat fancier effects, we should work to ensure that their basic navigational function is never diluted.   Usability and accessibility trump bling.
  3. Include a site index, map, or table of contents:  As a student, AxisPortals was always extraordinarily fond of books that included detailed TOC’s and indices.  These remarkable tools meant that AxisPortals could very quickly find precisely the information she needed to complete a project or a paper, and wouldn’t have to page laboriously through an entire tome to find them.  Any content container of significant length that actually helps you find your way through it is a thing to treasure.  Indeed, the very best of these references rapidly become indespensible.  When they are books, we keep them always at hand, growing fonder and fonder of them as they grow ever more dilapidated from lovingly regular use.  When they are websites, we bookmark them, turn to them often, and pass them along to others.    Whether your site is about movies or pizza, social networking or healthcare managment, baseball or vintage records, the users who visit it are looking for something specific.  Provide them with the tools that make sorting through your content and locating their desired information as simple as possible, and your site could easily become a much loved, often returned to favorite.
  4. Consider embedding a site specific search tool.  Many free, easily embeddable search tools (e.g. Google Site Search) are readily available.  A site search feature is particularly appealing on large sites, but can enhance a small to medium sized site, as well.  Why not make it easy for your web visitors to locate the particular person, product, or phrase they are after? 
  5. Check your site statistics periodically to determine how users are actually navigating your site, and make ongoing changes accordingly.  Once you’ve cleaned and polished your navigational structure and tools, be sure to routinely reconsider and update them as your site evolves.  The nested menus and deep structures that wouldn’t make sense or be at all user friendly for relatively small sites might make perfect sense as your site grows to encompass upwards of a hundred pages.  The keyword that visitors often search for on your site might deserve a page of its own, and a prominent place in the navigation scheme.  Keep in mind that just as a web site is never really done, a website’s navigation is never entirely final.  Your site will best support your business, your team, and your clients when it is organized in logical, easily navigable fashion that evolves along with the site.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  The easier you make it for site visitors to find exactly what they’re looking for, the more likely they are to hang around and explore the rest.

Well, thanks--that narrows it down!

Well, thanks--that narrows it down!






The Knowledgeable vs. The Knowledge-Able

January 8, 2009

Michael Wesch’s new essay in Academic Commons should be read far beyond the realms of academia. 

AxisPortals fully expects to be quoting from “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able:  Learning in New Media Environments” for a long while.  Indeed, the piece is so darned quotable that it might just be faster to throw quotation marks around the whole thing and leave it at that.   “Yeah, what he said,” isn’t one of AxisPortals’ most frequently invoked phrases, but that’s the reaction that this essay prompted.  Wesch understands the phenomenon collectively (not to mention ubiquitously and often unthoughtfully) known as Web 2.0 far better than the vast majority of human beings do.  Better yet, he’s able to share that understanding in sharp but approachable prose. 

Here’s one favorite section of the essay:

 Wikis, blogs, tagging, social networking and other developments that fall under the “Web 2.0” buzz are especially promising in this regard because they are inspired by a spirit of interactivity, participation, and collaboration. It is this “spirit” of Web 2.0 which is important to education. The technology is secondary. This is a social revolution, not a technological one, and its most revolutionary aspect may be the ways in which it empowers us to rethink education and the teacher-student relationship in an almost limitless variety of ways.

That’s smart on so many levels that it’s hard to know exactly where to begin praising it, but “the technology is secondary”  and “it is this ‘spirit’of Web 2.0 which is  important” are particularly striking turns of phrase,  and their wisdom is utterly applicable in  the business world.   Again and again, this is the very thing I wish I could magically and permanently impress on IT decision makers, especially in the SMB.  Which specific technology you have access to is in many respects much less important than knowing something about how to use it.  And “knowing how to use it” is increasingly less a matter of technical training and know how than it is a matter of understanding how communication is different, now, and how our goals and our measures of success must also shift.   Stasis is simply gone.  Emergence is the order of the day.  Sounds simple, but envisioning communication as a constant back and forth flow still requires a major shift in world view for many business leaders.

Not long ago, I watched a CEO type painstakingly set up a folder hierarchy for a new document storage solution (not quite a CMS, even–more a matter of shared FTP folders).  Now, I”m not entirely against organization.  After all, without some sense of structure, people feel lost and frustrated.  On the other hand, I know that forcing users into rigid, predetermined folder hierarchies often defeats the very purpose of any document sharing and storage tool. 

It’s tough to know ahead of time exactly which documents an organization will produce, and documents themselves are fluid.  Where was the possibility for users to tag their information, I wondered?  Where was the possibility for them to work on projects simultaneously?  Where was the possibility for them to create the organic and emerging structures that would best suit their ongoing projects, and their new or developing ideas?  Where, for gosh sakes, was the possibility for users even to accomplish something so elemental as adding  a new folder? 

This was definitely a case of the specific technology entirely trumping and possibly even ultimately squelching the spirit of the thing. 

Why is the cardboard folder still our model of the ideal information container and transporter, anyway?  I’ve always hated real world folders.  They get dog eared, people fail to alphabetize them correctly, stuff gets taken out of them without being put back into them, and they accumulate in  a most frightening fashion. They’re really quite the pain.  So why is the kind of manilla folder that a 50’s era secretary was forever fussing with  still our overarching metaphor for how information should be managed?  Maybe it’s time to change that.  Oh, we don’t have to get rid of them entirely–AxisPortals would never (well, seldom) suggest igniting a folder bonfire–but we really do need to think beyond those rectangular containers, and to understand that even information that is visibly sorted into a folder does and should exceed the boundaries of that folder, and should be easy to locate in other ways (keyword, tag, title, text search), and easy to mix and remix with far flung documents from all sorts of exotic elsewheres (including other folders, of course).  We need to understand that every document is a multiplicity of flows.

AxisPortals Aphorism: Information doesn’t have to be captured in flat little alphabetized containers any more.  If you free it, it will flow. (Try clicking on some of the tags and categories even in this fledgling blog, and you will soon see exactly what AxisPortals means.)