Web Design

Don't expect site visitors to find a snowflake in a blizzard
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THERE IS a lot wrong with Web design - especially evident when I see how Web designers throw together the navigation for their sites. Still, I tell myself this is a very young medium and I should not despair. Not yet, anyway.

THERE IS a lot wrong with Web design - especially evident when I see how Web designers throw together the navigation for their sites. Still, I tell myself this is a very young medium and I should not despair. Not yet, anyway.

Right now, Web designers are still experimenting with new ideas and new techniques, and this is something that I very much encourage. But after five years in this business, there are a few things that I have learnt not to do. Here they are:

Do not waste space with navigation: Any link on a page the visitor is not interested in clicking is wasted space on the screen. Yet many Web designers fill their site pages with links that, if the visitor did not select on the home page, it is unlikely they will ever click. Consider a banking site that offers services to individuals, small businesses and corporations. The front page presents all three options as starting points to the diverse services available in each category. But then on following pages, links between all three areas remain. Can you think of any reason, though, why someone who is interested in an individual banking account would ever want to switch over to the corporate services? I can't, and even if this rare case ever existed, that person can always return to the home page, which should never be more than a click away.

Do not lose the navigation: Imagine you were typing a letter in your word processor and when you reached the bottom of the typing area, your menu bar scrolled off the top of the screen as you continued to type. Every time you needed to access the menu bar, you would have to scroll back up to the top of the page. This would make for a very frustrating user interface, but this is exactly what many designers expect visitors to do.

One way around this is to include ubiquitous "Return to top" links, but this gets clunky. I prefer to put my navigation into frames so that it is always available and in the consistent position on the screen. This way visitors do not have to monkey around searching the page and wasting their valuable time. It is important, of course, to minimise the size of these frames in order to maximise the area available for the content.

Do not confuse types of navigation: Not all navigation is created equal. Web pages will have many different types of navigation on them depending on a variety of factors. The main navigation is used to travel between the most important areas of the site. For example, I am working on a site right now where the main navigation consists of four steps used in purchasing a product. However, there are several other parts of the site that do not directly contribute to selling the product. This is the auxiliary navigation, since it leads to subordinate functionality within the site, such as a help page, site map, registration screen and contact page. While these are important, they are not what the site is about and not what I want the visitor focusing on. I have placed the main navigation in a prominent position in large letters at the top of the screen, and the auxiliary navigation in a much smaller area with much smaller type at the bottom of the screen.

Do not rely on the browser's controls for navigation: Many visitors will depend on the built-in browser controls. They are comfortable with how these controls work and know what to expect when they hit the back or forward arrows. However, at least as many will never even think to touch the controls at the top of the browser to move around in your site, and if they can't get to where they want to go, guess who gets the blame? Try to make sure the visitor can always get back to where they were in your website with a minimum of fuss, and never lead them down a dead end, and then tell them to use the browser's back arrow. Instead, always include a link back to the page you want the visitor to go.

Do not put every link on every page: One of the most common mistakes that I see designers make is to place every possible link to every possible page in the site on every possible page in the mistaken belief that visitors will want to go anywhere at anytime. I call this the "snowflake in a blizzard" effect, as trying to find the one link you're looking for in this mass is like trying to find a snowflake in a blizzard. Remember Rule 1: any link on a page that the visitor is not going to click, is wasted space.

If they did not select the link on the home page of the site, then the chances they'll click it on subsequent pages goes way down. This is not to say visitors always follow some sort of linear path straight through the site to their goal. You can expect that visitors will skip around looking for what they want. However, you should organise the site so that they can move quickly between subjects and then down to more detailed subjects, without having to see all of the detailed links at the same time. One common way of doing this is using "clam shell" menus that allow you to organise your links into main topics that are in a single menu. When one of the topics is selected, a sub-menu of topics appears underneath the main topic, but the full menu of topics is still available to flip between. A great example of this method in action is at Communication Arts.

OK, those are the Don'ts. Next week, I will talk about what you should do with the navigation in your website.

Jason Cranford Teague is a senior information architect at iXL and the author of 'DHTML for the World Wide Web' - from bookstores around the UK.

You can find an archive of this column at Webbed Environments or e-mail him