Proper Website Navigation : Why You Absolutely Need It

(with due apologies to Jakob Nielsen)
by Kiruba Shankar
(kiruba@kiruba.com)

-- Kiruba Shankar has a strong inclination towards Usability. He currently works with Satyam Infoway Ltd and one of his interests is to improve the usability of its websites. With an inherent interest in writing, his articles have appeared in The Hindu, PC Quest, DataQuest, DQ Week and ITspace.com. Kiruba has taken the intiative to start the Usability Professionals Group, a non-profit organisation to help enhance the knowlege of practising and entusiastic usability professionals. Visit him at http://www.kiruba.com --

First, a word of caution for Jakob Nielsen ( http://www.useit.com/jakob/ ) followers. If you are the guy who laps up every word of Alertbox http://www.useit.com/alertbox/subscribe.html ), you probably are better off exiting this page now. You'd probably find this article a little hard to digest. No, I'm not one of those Jakob bashers. I'm not a Jakob lover either. I take for what it's worth. I believe his views are like a curate's egg. Some good in parts, the others awfully bad. And I mince no bones in letting you know my opinion. So like me, I suggest you take it for what its worth. No more, no less.

In one of his Alertbox columns, web usability "Guru" Jakob Nielsen asks the question, "Is navigation useful?" http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20000109.html ) In other words, does a "menu" of some kind make sense for web users? Boy, what a question! That's like asking a new visitor to Manhattan, "Is a road map useful ?!"

I do believe a lot in Nielsen's points. But sometimes he goes overboard with some truly outstanding flaws. For one, Nielsen says: "do not link to all sections of the site from all pages". Why not Mr.Nielsen ? Why not show users what's on the site? Won't this be helpful for the surfer to navigate through easily ? Of course! Nielsen backs up his argument with a ridiculous example: "what is the probability that a user will go from looking at hairdryers to looking at grunge music?" Not likely, admittedly, but few websites offer such a choice. A more reasonable example: what is the probability that a user will go from looking at "hardware" to "software" or "support" or "contact information"? A better one , I would say.

How users get around websites Hey, I'm not an Usability "Expert" or the omniscient "Guru". But I do understand that users can arrive at any page within a website by a number of means: a link, a search engine, a directory, typing a web address directly, and so on. There is often no way to predict how a user will end up at any website. Therefore, web pages can't be isolated from the rest of the site if the site is to be successful and have lots of users. Visitors need some way of getting around the website:
* navigation (a menu of some kind)
* hypertext (links right in the content)
* search
There are other ways of getting around a website, including constantly visible site maps and context-sensitive relations, all of which remain fairly uncommon today. Navigation is at issue here, particularly because Nielsen, one of the most-read web usability "gurus", might be giving designers the wrong idea.

A search mechanism is a must for fairly large websites, or for those that can't be assigned an easily-understood architecture (in other words, a simple site map). Many users head straight to search in order to find what they're looking for, especially if the users perceive that the website has a complex structure that is difficult to navigate.

Nielsen's own website ( http://www.useit.com ) doesn't really have good navigation. Instead, it relies mostly on well-implemented hypertext linking, and users can get around most of the website simply by clicking on links in the content. Nielsen's website gets away with basically no navigation, because Nielsen understands hypertext linking. In Nielsen's uthopian world wide web, sites wouldn't really need any navigation other than a "contact information" link on every page. In the real world wide web, sites NEED navigation. Hypertext is under used, sites aren't ultra-specific, and search is unreliable.

What is "navigation"?
Navigation is basically a menu mechanism: something that lets the user jump from one part of a website to another. On this website netusability.org , every page has navigation: a menu that users can take advantage of for quick movement around the site. Everything on the site is divided into a few content areas, and the navigational menu gives users access to each content area, but doesn't overwhelm them with choices.

Essentially, navigation can be any mechanism that constantly gives users access to certain sections of a website. It's very difficult to incorporate navigation into a paragraph of text and to use hypertext links, but it's easy to create a "menu" like the one on this site.

Why navigation is useful?
Navigation, which can be made too complex if not carefully managed and restricted, is tremendously useful, even though Nielsen claims that users don't really notice it. Here are a few reasons why navigation is useful:
* it gives users an idea of the scope of the website
* it is a terrific fallback mechanism
* it reduces users' cognitive overhead
When designers are creating a website, developing navigation is a task that should be carefully organized, and the results tested according to the purposes of navigation. If navigation is reasonably designed, people will use it.

Presenting scope
Navigation should show users what's on the website, but not highlight specific content. A complex home page with headings and text that describes everything on the website is no good; users won't sit at their screens and spend the next ten minutes wading through plethora of text. Plus, users that find their way into the site on some page other than the home page won't be able to get an idea of what's on the site unless there is some kind of navigation available.

My final point
Navigation saves the user from some frustration. Certainly, websites cannot rely strictly on navigation and expect to be successful , but it is necessary to help users who find the other methods of getting around the website inadequate. Raves or rants? No matter what, feel free to send in your views (and death threats?!) to kiruba@kiruba.com

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