The release of version 4 of the leading Web browsers has been the cause of much celebration despite the fact that their support for user navigation is hardly better than Mosaic's (released 1993). Even though browsers have been substantially improved during the last four years, most of these improvements are aimed at serving media publishers: very few new features actually help users get around and manage their information needs better.
The architecture of most Web browsers bundles three levels of functionality:
- An Internet access layer with various protocols for communicating with remote websites, ranging from simple HTTP to various types of encryption and rating services (e.g., for avoiding pornography). The access layer has been improved substantially over the years: the keep-alive feature in HTTP 1.1 cuts load time in half for many pages; secure transmission of credit card numbers and other sensitive data helps people feel safe online. The continued lack of micro-payments is a major disappointment and impediment to the growth of quality Web services.
- A navigation layer that keeps track of where users have been on the Web and helps them go where they want to go today. This layer has been sorely neglected and is the main topic of this column.
- A presentation layer that takes a page from the navigation layer and renders it on the screen for users to enjoy. Most of the efforts in upgrading Web browsers have focused on this layer, introducing many options for fancy layout ranging from the annoying (animated GIFs) to the useful ( style sheets).
In my July 1995 Alertbox, I called for several navigation features to be added to Web browsers:
- Better bookmark management. It has indeed gotten slightly easier to manage bookmarks: one can add a bookmark to a category instead of an endless list and users can see which bookmarked pages have changed since their last visit. Even so, bookmarks are still unreasonably difficult to use and do not provide sufficient support for users who visit a large number of sites.
- Various facilities to leverage other users' behavior into quality ratings of links: still completely missing; current browsers think that all links are equal.
- Overview diagrams of the user's navigation history. We can now sort the history list so that all the pages visited on a given site are listed together, but visualization is still missing. It would be very useful to have active sitemaps that showed the user's movements with footprints, showed additional detail at the current focus of attention while collapsing other regions, and also showed connections to other sites with a preview of the relevant sections of these other sites.
- A list of 15 navigation features that had been invented before 1995 but were not in Web browsers in 1995. Well, they still aren't.
There have admittedly been some improvements, such as the ability to pop-down the history list from the Back button and the improved tooltip that tells you where the Back button will take you (the original tooltip that said something to the effect that "Back goes back" was as close to useless as I have ever seen in online help). Channels probably do count as a new navigation feature and can be seen as active fat bookmarks that allow users to monitor a larger scope than a single page at a time.
Lack of Structure Support
Most of the problems with browser navigation can be traced to a single phenomenon: browsers still view individual pages as the fundamental units of navigation and have no support for treating multiple pages as a structure. Users are much more likely to get lost when they are not shown the relationships between the various pages they visit.
At a minimum, structure should be supported at the site level and the subsite level. For example, each site should have a name (typically the company name) that could be shown as a tooltip for links to pages within that site. Also, pages from the same region of a site (that is, a subsite) should be treated as a unit in history lists, bookmarks, searches, etc.
Showing search results in a sliding browser pane is a start that allows for weak integration between searching and browsing, but much tighter integration is needed. For example, if a page has a link to something that was on the search results list, then that link should be highlighted to indicate that it is related to the user's current interests. As another example, the search results list should highlight hits from sites that the user has visited in the past, since the user is likely to prefer those hits. This latter idea can be extended to vary the highlighting depending on the time the user has spent at the various sites (a site you use a lot would be shown more prominently than a site you use a little).
In general, page navigation must be integrated with value-added services retrieved from third-party servers. A current example (which is a clunky add-on and not truly integrated with the browser) is the Alexa where-to-go-next service which recommends other pages that are similar to the one the user is currently reading. A better example would be a reputation manager that annotated each hypertext link with the quality of the destination as judged by other users who have the same taste as the current user.
How You Can Improve Navigation
Since browsers provide lousy navigation support, you need to go beyond the call of duty if you are a content designer. Websites need to include extensive navigation support to help users overcome the limitations of their software. Here are some things you can do yourself today:
- Include a site identifier on every page to let users know where they are relative to the Web as a whole. Usually, this takes the form of a corporate logo in the upper left corner of the screen (upper right if the site is in a language that reads right-to-left).
- Make it easy to get to landmark pages: every page should be linked to the home page (typically by making the logo into a link) and to the search page.
- Emphasize the structure of your information architecture: make every page show what subsite (or other structural element) it belongs to and include a link to the overview page or main page for at least one level up in the structure. Such links should not have generic names like "go one level up" but should be specific and name the level they point to.
- Do not change the default link colors : links to unvisited pages should be some shade of blue and links to previously visited pages should be some shade of purple. Staying with shades of the default colors allows users to understand what parts of the site they have already seen: this helps them form a mental model of the site since they can relate the site structure to their personal navigation history.
- Draw a sitemap that shows the most important levels of your information structure and the relations between different parts of the site.