It's not just what you get on the Web - it's how you get there

Navigation is the key to success for the serious surfers
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The Independent Online

Navigation is what makes the Web run. It can come in many flavours: Main-menus, sub-menus, auxiliary menus, image maps, hypertext links, and any other scheme you can think of to allow visitors to move from page to page. A well-thought-out navigation will allow visitors to get to the information they want with the minimum fuss. Poor navigation may piss-off visitors to your Web site so much they may never want to return.

Navigation is what makes the Web run. It can come in many flavours: Main-menus, sub-menus, auxiliary menus, image maps, hypertext links, and any other scheme you can think of to allow visitors to move from page to page. A well-thought-out navigation will allow visitors to get to the information they want with the minimum fuss. Poor navigation may piss-off visitors to your Web site so much they may never want to return.

I spoke last week, of what should not be done with navigation on a Web site. This week I'm more positive.

Always keep navigation consistent: Once you have established the general navigation structure for your site, don't move it around or radically alter it on each page. If the main navigation is on the left side, do not move it to the right on the next screen. If you have the auxiliary navigation along the bottom, do not suddenly start placing banner ads in that area.

There are some exceptions. Home pages can often have a different navigational layout, just as a magazine cover has a different layout from inside.

Always let the visitor know where they are and how they got there: Remember Hansel and Gretel following their breadcrumbs through the forest to the witch's house? The most common method is by listing the pages (usually starting with the home page) visitor travel through to get where they are: Home > Forest> More Forest > Witch's house. The path shows a logical progression and each title is actually a link back to that page. Yahoo is the most obvious example of this "breadcrumb" technique.

The problem with this system is that, unless it is dynamically generated as the path is followed, it assumes there is always a single linear path to any destination. But with hypertext there are always multiple paths.

Always show and tell if the navigation is vague: It's not only nice to know where you are and how you got there, it's also nice to know where you are going. When a visitor is new to a site, however, they will often not know what some of the vague terms you use to describe the navigation points. One of the chief frustrations for surfers is following the wrong path when they are looking for particular information. They might get lost, and they may have to wait to load pages they did not want. But a brief explanation of what's behind the link will help. If you do not have enough screen space, JavaScript or DHTML rollovers are handy. Devote a small area of the screen to text explanations that appear as the visitor rolls a mouse over the link. Macromedia uses flash to create rollover descriptions of items in their news menu.

Always give the visitor control and flexibility: Most software these days allows users to tailor the interface, move control pallets around the screen, add and subtract frequently used tools from those pallets.

The Web is more limiting in what we can do to allow the visitor control over the interface, but there are a few things I like to do. The most important is to provide a site map in a small "remote control" window (www.webbedenvironments.com/articles/50.html). This site map palette can quickly move around in the site just like the remote control of a TV.

Always give the visitor somewhere to go next: I reached the end of an article in a popular Web magazine for Information Architects (www.infotect.com/) and found I could go backwards and forwards through the article, but there was no link back to the magazine or anywhere else in the site. Dead ends often happen with forms online. Enter your information, hit "submit," and a page comes up thanking you for entering it. Nothing more. These pages don't even include standard navigation. Worse are search engines where, if your query returns no results, a message appears saying; "Nothing found. Please use your back arrow to return to the search page." NO, NO, and a thousand times NO! Put a new search form field on this page so visitors can begin a new search.

Jason Cranford Teague is a Senior Information Architect at iXL and the author of 'DHTML for the World Wide Web', available from bookstores around the UK. If you have questions, you can find an archive of this column at Webbed Environments; or e-mail him.

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