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Designing Site Navigation
By Virtual Mechanics
Thinking of a web site as an architectural design is  actually a good analogy. It must have a structure expressed  as continuity in the layout scheme. It must be functional in  the value of the things that it offers the visitor. It should be pleasing in the form of its design and detail. And it should be easy for a first time visitor to find their way around. When finished, your web site can be comparable to a skid row warehouse or to an architectural jewel such as "Falling Water" by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In a previous article I discussed how quickly a web page should load. The easy aspect about writing an article on load speed is that the objective is generally obvious, to load your pages as fast as possible. Discussing navigation is more subjective. The motherhood and apple pie objective is easy, "make your site navigation simple and intuitive".  What does that really mean? One person's intuitive navigation is another person's spaghetti network.

No matter how good an artist you are, designing a navigation scheme is not an artistic endeavor. It should be cold, functional and so simple and intuitive that your visitors never realize that it is an integral component of your web site. In fact, a good website navigation scheme will probably never elicit a compliment from a visitor. ("Hey, I just visited your web site, the navigation was great"). A bad scheme will. ("I tried visiting your site but I could not find anything so I left")

You cannot design a decent web site without first designing the navigation system that your visitors will use to find their way around. A web site's navigation scheme is the 'human' component upon which it will work or fail.

I first became involved in computer graphics and animation as a post-graduate architecture student.  I was taught that the first thing an Architect does when designing a new building is to create a balloon design. This is a very rough sketch that shows the relationship between the various functional areas of a building and how people move and relate to those areas. A web site design should start in exactly the same way.

Before worrying about the appearance, nifty graphics or promotional text on your site, you should first consider what the most important functional areas are that you wish your visitors to experience. Draw rough balloons on a piece of paper to represent these functions and then draw lines between them to represent how people are going to move between them. Should it be a direct path or do you want them to pass through another functional area first? Move the balloons around until you have each main function sensibly positioned with efficient paths between them.

Another University I am familiar with did not put any paths between the buildings at its new campus when it was first built. Instead they left grass between them for the first year or two. Then they built the paths wherever the grass was worn out by foot traffic. Although you cannot avoid creating links when you create your site, you should be aware of where your visitors wish to go and ensure that they can quickly and easily be able to do so. Use a good stats analysis program to find out. Once you know where your visitors are going, you can improve your navigation by placing links at appropriate places.

Graphics can add a lot to a web page but text usually generates more links. Whenever you write about any topic, product or service on another web page, include a link within the text. Don't expect the reader to look for it. If your graphic links are not absolutely clear, add text so that your visitors don't need to guess where they go.

Once your visitor has figured out your navigation scheme, don't change it. Repeat the same navigation on each page. Use the same text in the same color at the same location. As I said before, this is really not the place to express your artistic skills.

Finally, a visitor will have a hard time knowing where to go if they don't know where they are. Clearly identify each page in a fashion that your visitor can quickly locate and identify. This can be in the form of a large page title or a small tag. The key is to make it obvious and consistent from page to page.

I am a great believer in artistic expression. The Internet has provided more people with the opportunity to express their artistic skills through Web Page design than anything else I can think of short of designing costumes for a carnival. No matter how elaborate a carnival costume is, it must still be able to stay on the wearer (I think). Other aspects of a web page can be as elaborate as you like but the navigation is the simple component that will make it work.


Source: "IMS Web Tips" is a weekly news letter for all web site managers regardless of experience who are looking for detailed information on creating, maintaining and promoting their web sites.

To subscribe send an email to join.imswebtips@list.imswebtips.com or visit www.IMSWebTips.com for subscription information and a list of past articles.



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