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Achieving a New Balance

May 14th, 2009 by Bob Crisler

In thinking about the broad aspects of user interaction design that form the bulk of our task in re-envisioning an effective web template for the university, we first need to focus on what it is we’re trying to accomplish.

Boiled down, the job of the web template is to assist the user in locating content while maintaining strong university identity. The navigational framework of a site, any site, is a supporting player. It has to be the best supporting player we can imagine, but in the end it should slip into the wings, and let the spotlight shine brightly on what the web user came to the site to see, to read, to experience: the content.

The case for horizontal/hidden navigation

Think about it: we may glance at a table of contents or an index to locate information in a book, but by itself, the reference to a chapter or index notation to a particular page carries no meaning, any more than a highway sign carries meaning. It’s a tool. It gets you there. Whenever we’re seeking something, online or off, navigation is a function that we access, and then we set aside in order to focus on whatever it was that we were seeking.

Content, now that’s where we find meaning. Content, it’s often said, is King. Content is the point of the exercise. We wouldn’t have a website at all if it weren’t an effective and efficient way to tell our story, share our information and interact with a mass audience. How do we know content is king (despite all of the posts online that argue the converse)? Because one thing we do know is that Google is God, and Google indexes what? Content.

Pixels are a finite commodity. There may be a lot of dots (pixels, or “picture elements”) on that screen that you’re staring at right now. Lots of dots that form a picture. However many dots there are, though, their number is limited. Designate more dots for one function, and there are less available for another function. Of particular relevance in this discussion: use more dots for navigation, there are less available for content. It’s a zero-sum game. And in that zero-sum game, content needs to be, MUST be, the number one priority.

HORIZONTAL/HIDDEN is an accepted standard navigational scheme. “Hidden” second levels of navigation are a well-accepted standard; they have been since complex systems were first designed. Not convinced? Look at your computer. Be it Windows, Mac or Linux, the main navigational elements are arranged at the top of the window (or in the case of the Mac, the screen), horizontally, left to right, with sublevels available on mouseover.

Even Google’s ultra-Spartan main page uses horizontal main/hidden secondary navigation. It’s the most-visited site on Earth, so this navigation choice doesn’t seem to have hurt them. Of course, the Google page isn’t really a content page, unless you consider a huge search box “content.” So YouTube, Facebook, the White House, and what the heck, a great university site: Stanford, all use some variation of horizontal/hidden. Facebook and YouTube reveal the secondary nav in the old-skool way, by navigating to the page that contains the secondary links. The White House drops menus on mouseover for each of its main navigational categories. Stanford uses a “show expanded menus/hide expanded menus” control to access secondary links. The Stanford menu itself is good, displaying everything in one fell swoop, but I do find myself wondering about the control implementation; it seems to rely entirely on users attending to and reading an instruction, instead of leveraging users’ intuition.

Google's main page; horizontal/hidden secondary nav

Google's main page: the most-visited (most successful?) web page of all; note the horizontal navigation with hidden secondary links.

PROGRESSIVE DISCLOSURE aids the discovery process by focusing the user on what’s important. “The very fact that something appears on the initial display tells users that it’s important,” says Jakob Nielsen, partner in Nielsen Norman Group, a leading web usability consultancy. Further, Nielsen says, “You might assume that by initially focusing users’ attention on a few core features, they might build a limiting mental model of the system and thus be unable to understand all of their options. Research says these are groundless worries: people understand a system better when you help them prioritize features and spend more time on the most important ones.” Typically, a site’s highest-priority links, either textual or graphical, will be featured in the page’s main content area; another argument in favor of giving the content area in any design the highest possible visual priority.

The Nielsen Norman Group has also done some study on what they term “mega drop-down navigation menus,” a type of navigation that describes the 2009 nav system. In short: beats flyout menus; works well.

USABILITY TESTING will determine which particular details become part of the overall user interaction on the UNL website navigational toolset. For instance, is it better to deliver the sub-navigation immediately on mouseover/hover, or is it better to add a delay to avoid “flashing” the navigational toolset when the user is simply mousing across the page, or is it better to require the user to click on the navigation to reveal the subnavigation? Is the norm of operating systems (all major OSes, in their current incarnations [Ubuntu/GNOME representing Linux for the sake of this discussion], require a mouse click to activate their submenus, rather than simply displaying them on hover) powerful enough to have built a user expectation of clicking before the secondary navigation is revealed?

TAXONOMY is the five-dollar word to describe what it is that goes into a navigation system. It’s the other part of a navigation system; what it contains (there’s that word again: contains; content). What is the information architecture? How is the content organized? It’s a part of the discussion we’ve never before addressed, and I’m pleased to announce that Roger Simonsen, College of Business Administration, will be leading a group of college and departmental web developers in this very important and interesting task. The outcome will be a “best practices,” a suggested outline for a college of university site. There are no illusions that there is a “cookie cutter” outline for a college or departmental site. But there are probably significant enough overlaps that it may make sense to attempt to “normalize” the user experience among sites … for instance, a generally-accepted position and phrasing for links to faculty pages might be one outcome. Thanks to Roger for taking on this task; you should begin to see communication on this subject within the WDN site over the coming months.

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