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11. "Signpost My Journey"

Given that we have to create layers of information, and paths through them, we need to provide signposts that show customers where they're going. We need to help customers navigate.

When a Web designer designs a navigation system, they are designing a system of visual cues that helps customers find their way around a Web site. We can think of navigation as the framework that helps customers understand what they are doing on a Web site.

Some navigation systems are better than others. That said, there are some common areas where navigation systems frustrate customers. Within these systems we use navigation devices that provide the cues as to where we are, where we've been, and where we're going. Some of these are also better than others.

Customers get frustrated when you throw them too many curve balls. When they go to your Web site, they have to learn to use your navigation system and devices. Customers become angry when you don't allow them to learn your system, because you're inconsistent or it just "doesn't make sense" (and, remember, that sense is defined by the customer).

Information architecture and navigation are huge topics. We will look at them in more depth in Chapter 7 when considering customer-effective Web site design. Here, we will look at the common things that trip customers up.

Navigation systems

Inconsistency seems to be the thing that most often trips customers up. If a Web site introduces customers to a navigation system up front, they expect it to apply throughout the whole site, without exception. The main "anchors" for customers are navigation bars and frames-when these differ, for no apparent reason, customers start to flounder.

Consistency is also particularly important in relation to site hierarchies; often Web sites don't clearly show levels, or layers, of information, or they mix them up. Customers very quickly lose their grasp of your navigation system if the hierarchy is messed up.

Many sites revert to different navigation systems within one site (particularly in cases where the site is structured around the company and not the customer). Unless customers can see the relationships between these different systems, up front, and have some common way of navigating between them, they're likely to get lost. A single, consistent system seems to work best-in fact, if it works, customers don't even really notice it's there; they just use it intuitively. (And note here that a system can be consistently made up of a number of approaches that all function as one system.) Interestingly, customers seem to be comfortable with a reasonable amount of complexity in the navigation system, as long as it makes sense to them and they can learn it quickly. An overly simple navigation system doesn't necessarily win points if it "hides" the site from the customer (as is sometimes the case). Sometimes customers won't go digging into a "hidden" site, because they don't know its value, or they will start to dig, find some useful stuff, and get annoyed that they didn't know about it in the first place.

Another, very interesting, and disappointing, discovery is that many customers treat their browser as an inseparable part of your navigation system. For example, some customers blame a company's Web site that doesn't do what they want when they hit "back" on their browser; they don't get mad at the browser. This is particularly problematic in transactional processes where the customer uses the browser to go back and forth while entering and sending information-many Web sites aren't technically able to cope with this and the customer ends up getting error messages, losing information, or giving up.

Navigational devices

Within the navigation system there will be a number of navigation devices-elements of the Web site that allow customers to get around within the basic navigational structure.

One of the most common frustrations is not being able to work out where they are at a certain point in time or where they've been. From your home page, customers get a path (or paths) in mind. Customers will want to roughly follow that path and make sure they're roughly on track as they go.

There are some simple devices that help customers, and, when these are not used properly, they cause the most problems:

  • Inconsistent or non-existent highlighting to show where the customer is on the site.

  • Changes in the color of links. Sometimes the links don't change color when selected or the colors are inconsistent. This leaves the customer wondering what the different responses mean in relation to where they've been.

  • What is clickable? Every clickable object should be obvious. I have observed many customers who run their mouse over a page to see what's clickable or "live" once a page has downloaded. If you don't consistently show customers what is clickable, they will get frustrated quickly. I have seen customers curse because they've tried, repeatedly, to click on something that they expect to take them somewhere, only to find that it's not "live". Passive images, such as "wallpaper" images, seem to be particularly problematic, because customers try to click on them.

  • Sending no feedback on where customers have been. Some sites provide feedback on the layers and/or sections of the site customers pass through. In very deep sites, this seems to help customers to keep track of things. Many sites offer no feedback or only sporadic feedback. Customers get confused about the cues they are supposed to be using to find their way around.

  • Misleading or nonexistent labels. We don't have room on a single screen to write full explanations of what each object is; we use labels. In truncating instructions to labels we create a real risk of confusing customers. Many labels just don't make sense to customers, particularly when the label is "company-speak" and not "customer-speak." Labels that are different from the "standard" labels customers are used to seeing on Web sites are also problematic.

  • Unknown search functions. Often search exists at a number of levels on a site. Not surprisingly, customers expect the search to relate to the level of the site in which it is offered. Usually the search is general, vague, and not particularly well directed. To avoid customer frustration, a search function should appear in the appropriate context and customers should know what the search is being performed on.

  • Inconsistent and misleading use of iconography. Sometimes sites combine words and labels to form their own icons, and these are often key to the navigation system. However, many attempts at iconography only go so far, and not far enough-they disappear leaving customers wondering what their signposts are.

  • Multiple windows. Some Web sites use new windows to present new information. If customers can't understand why this new information has appeared in a new window, or don't even realize they are in a new window, they will get confused, and lost, very quickly. I've seen some customers panic when a new window opens and heard them ask themselves, "How did that happen?"

  • Misleading visual symbols. Sometime sites use common visual symbols as a way of showing meaning. However, these symbols often mean something different to customers, who take them at face value. Also, common symbols may be loaded with meaning over and above what a customer would normally expect. For example, an arrow shows direction. Some web sites use arrows to indicate movement as well as direction (e.g., using arrows to indicate that customers can order a list of items by moving them). This additional meaning may be lost on customers.

  • Vague use of indexes. Customers sometimes face indexes that they don't understand. This makes the indexed information inaccessible to the customer. For example, a product index that is simply shown at the top level as A B C D, etc., means nothing to a customer. I've observed customers totally stumped by this sort of thing; they have no idea how you would categorize your products, and, chances are, they certainly don't know all your product names.

Blunders

Conflicting navigational systems

A customer goes to a company's home page, which introduces a main navigation bar across the top of the screen. This navigation bar categorizes the site by product groups. The home page also provides a list of links to all parts of the site (under the navigation bar).

The customer clicks on one of the product categories in the main navigation bar. This takes them to a page that lists all the links available within that "section of the site." However, the customer later discovers that these are, in fact, "pseudo" sections and not actually core to the navigation of the site, because when they click on one of the links from the home page they get a different Web site with a different navigation bar. And there are no links between the two navigation systems. The customer sits for a few moments going forward and back trying to work out the relationship between the home page and the next level of pages, trying to decide which system they want to use (i.e., they are about to make a trade off).

It seems the top-level system (the main navigation bar on the Web site and the pages on each product category) has just been wallpapered over the underlying navigational system (the list of links on the home page and the Web sites they correspond to). This has introduced conflicting navigation systems and confused the customer, who has been forced to either lose the perspective of one system in favor of the other, or learn both.

The sequence the customer goes through is shown in Figure 2-5.

Absence of a navigational system

A customer goes to a company's Web site. The home page is roughly in two halves. The top half includes three images that the customer can click on, "Articles," "Introduction to the Firm," and "Special Feature." The bottom half looks more like a list of links to different sections of the Web site: "Contacts," "Services," "Search," "Clients," etc.

Figure 2-5 Conflcting navigation systems.

The customer discovers that clicking on the top half and the bottom half generates a stand-alone section relative to the area selected. To get to a new section of the Web site the customer has to go back to the home page and make a selection from there.

This is extremely time-consuming, and cumbersome, and the customer asks themselves "Why couldn't they just put links to all the sections on all the pages to save me going backward and forward all the time?" Good question.

Too many homes

A customer goes to the Web site of an international company to find out about the services offered by some of its local offices. The home page downloads and it relates to the international company. From here the customer selects the first local office they are interested in.

Selecting the local office brings up a local office home page with its own "home" icon. There's also a link to the international home page at the top of the left-hand frame set.

The customer looks around for a while and then decides to go back to the international home page they received on entering the site, so they can select another local office. The customer absent mindedly clicks on "Home," forgetting that this relates to the local site and not the International site. Remembering that the international site is linked to at the top of the frame set, the customer clicks on that to get the international home page. Phew.

From here, the customer selects the next local office and they receive yet another home page. This time the customer discovers that the "home" icon does actually take you back to the international home page and not the local office home page. The customer slips up a couple of times while looking around this local site and hits "Home" to go back to the local office home page, only to end up at the international home page.

The customer decides, rightly or wrongly, that this company has no international coordination of local Web sites.

The sequence the customer goes through is shown in Figure 2-6.

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