Usability Engineering 101
Despite all the hype about the latest innovations on the World Wide Web, at the end of the day we must not forget that the human is the central character, and that it is the user whom web sites aim to please. It is only fitting, therefore, that it is the requirements of the user that we should try to fulfill, and all others should take second place.
Unfortunately, this is a much easier task to write about than to actually put into practice. Many so called "web designers" at the moment are churning out HTML like it was going out of fashion. Brilliant graphics and tons of nifty little utilities are no replacement for usable navigation. No matter how good the site looks, it will be useless unless you give your visitor a viable system to get around your site. A well thought out navigation system will make an impression on the visitors to your site and if your content is good enough, visitors will return to your site again and again.
Now we come to the crunch. We know that good navigation is essential to the success of a website, but what exactly does the term mean? There are some fundamental principles that successful navigation is built upon which you should take into consideration at the design stage, BEFORE actually writing any HTML. There are no right or wrong answers to achieving a successful navigation system, only happy or frustrated users. However, there are some basic principles which seem to work on the whole.
By being predictable (and note this does not mean boring) you can give the user a sense of your site’s organisation. In this context predictability means that if you have placed a blue "home" icon on one page in the top left hand corner, then this same button should also be BLUE in the rest of your pages throughout the same site and also be found in the TOP LEFT HAND CORNER. Your navigation design must provide links that make sense, so their actions will be intuitively understood by means of their graphical representation or their text links (be aware that some users may have their images turned off, so you must provide a text alternative to all images). Remember – remain consistent! The lack of user interface standards on the web means that novice users have no experience to fall back on when viewing web pages as design differs enormously from site to site. The least you can do is remain consistent within your own site. The web provides great power for jumping about within your content. Always provide a secure anchor, with links that lead to expected places, and build a familiar landscape to which users may return at any time. A good example would be to agree upon some sort of defining mark or logo which can be displayed across your site to distinguish it from others i.e. The Macromedia Logo.
You must give your users more than one way to access a particular piece of information. Just because you have a front page titled index.htm does not mean that the user will see that page first. They may be entering your site from someone else’s link that has taken them into one of your subsections and will therefore never be able to see your main page unless you give them a door in. Just think of your website as a group of roads connecting a city together. If a person takes the one road to your CV from that annoying picture of your pet which you insisted on scanning, then you must provide another road for them to go back to that picture at a later stage if they so wish! You must offer alternatives.
The goal is to provide the necessary information (i.e. the content that the user is wanting) in the least possible steps and the shortest time. To be able to achieve this a simple, organised hierarchy is required. The solution to achieving this is LOGIC. Although this sounds simple at first it is harder than you think. What is logical to you and me may not be logical to the next person that comes along to visit your site. This is quite difficult to achieve and you may never please everyone, however, you can be quite successful with the majority of people. Keep it clear and simple. Users should always be able to figure out where they are in the scheme of things. They need to have a sense of where they are placed in regards to your structure of information. You must give users a visual guidance whilst they are navigating your site.
Information must be organised in such a manner that they can be divided into several logical (that word again) units. People read from the web differently than they would from paper. On average, a person will take 30% more time to read text from a computer screen than they would from a book. Users will not read long amounts of information. Break them up into smaller readable chunks that require minimal scrolling. We web users are lazy and absolutely try to avoid coming into contact with that scroll bar as often as we can. Use your hierarchy to break up your information in accordance to how important you feel it is. Major pages should be one level down, whilst less demanded information could make up a subsection in your hierarchy. Hierarchy is very important because people understand them. From a hierarchical system, it is then easier to ease into more global navigation design, with more lateral movement between pages, but still keep with the hierarchy.
There is no such thing as a "formula" for successful website navigation. Trust your instincts and use your common sense and hopefully you will not go drastically wrong. Test, test and test again. You will soon realize if you have made a serious navigational error from your users’ reaction. Gradually you will come to a reasonable solution for your website; give the user what they need and they will truly reward you.
"O, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!" – Sir Walter Scott