Chapter 7. Navigation Systems

Chapter 7. Navigation Systems

Just wait, Gretel, until the moon rises, and then we shall see the crumbs of bread which I have strewn about; they will show us our way home again.

Hansel and Gretel

What we'll cover:
Balancing context and flexibility in web navigation
Integrating global, local, and contextual navigation
Supplemental navigation tools such as sitemaps, indexes, guides, wizards, and configurators
Personalization, visualization, tag clouds, collaborative filtering, and social navigation

As our fairy tales suggest, getting lost is a bad thing. It is associated with confusion, frustration, anger, and fear. In response to this danger, humans have developed navigation tools to prevent us from getting lost and to help us find our way home. From bread crumbs to compass and astrolabe, to maps, street signs, and global positioning systems, people have demonstrated great ingenuity in the design and use of navigation tools and wayfinding strategies.

We use these tools to chart our course, to determine our position, and to find our way back. They provide a sense of context and comfort as we explore new places. Anyone who has driven through an unfamiliar city as darkness falls understands the importance these tools and strategies play in our lives.

On the Web, navigation is rarely a life or death issue. However, getting lost in a large web site can be confusing and frustrating. While a well-designed taxonomy may reduce the chances that users will become lost, complementary navigation tools are often needed to provide context and to allow for greater flexibility. Structure and organization are about building rooms. Navigation design is about adding doors and windows.

In this book, we have split navigation and searching into individual chapters. This chapter focuses on navigation systems that support browsing; the next chapter digs deep into searching systems that are clearly components of navigation. In fact, structure, organization, labeling, browsing, and searching systems all contribute toward effective navigation.

7.1. Types of Navigation Systems

Navigation systems are composed of several basic elements, or subsystems. First, we have the global, local, and contextual navigation systems that are integrated within the web pages themselves. These embedded navigation systems are typically wrapped around and infused within the content of the site. They provide both context and flexibility, helping users understand where they are and where they can go. These three major systems, shown in Figure 7-1, are generally necessary but not sufficient in themselves.

Figure 7-1. Global, local, and contextual embedded navigation systems

Second, we have supplemental navigation systems such as sitemaps, indexes, and guides that exist outside the content-bearing pages. These are shown in Figure 7-2.

Figure 7-2. Supplemental navigation systems

Similar to search, these supplemental navigation systems provide different ways of accessing the same information. Sitemaps provide a bird's-eye view of the site. A to Z indexes allow direct access to content. And guides often feature linear navigation customized to a specific audience, task, or topic.

As we'll explain, each type of supplemental navigation system serves a unique purpose and is designed to fit within the broader framework of integrated searching and browsing systems.

7.2. Gray Matters

The design of navigation systems takes us deep into the gray area between information architecture, interaction design, information design, visual design, and usability engineering, all of which we might classify under the umbrella of user experience design.

As soon as we start talking about global, local, and contextual navigation, we find ourselves on the slippery slope that connects strategy, structure, design, and implementation. Does the local navigation bar work best at the top of the page, or is it better running down the left side? Should we use pull-downs, pop-ups, or cascading menus to reduce the required number of clicks? Will users ever notice gray links? Isn't it better to use the blue/red link color convention?

For better or for worse, information architects are often drawn into these debates, and we are sometimes responsible for making these decisions. We could try to draw a clear line in the sand, and argue that effective navigation is simply the manifestation of a well-organized system. Or we could abdicate responsibility and leave the interface to designers.

But we won't. In the real world, the boundaries are fuzzy and the lines get crossed every day. Information architects do design and designers do information architecture. And the best solutions often result from the biggest debates. While not always possible, interdisciplinary collaboration is the ideal, and collaboration works best when each of the experts understands something about the other areas of expertise.

So in this chapter, we roll up our sleeves, cross lines, step on toes, and get a little messy in the process. We tackle navigation design from the information architect's perspective. But before we drag you deep into this swampy gray matter, let us throw you a lifeline. In the Appendix, we have included references to a few truly excellent books that cover these topics from a variety of perspectives. We encourage you to read them all!