For almost seven years, my studies have shown the same user behavior: users look straight at the content and ignore the navigation areas when they scan a new page. (Remember, users almost always scan &mdash they rarely read carefully online.)
The big picture of user behavior has held constant as the dominant browser has cycled through Mosaic; Netscape 1, 2, and 3; and IE 4 and 5. It is clearly a fundamental phenomenon. Seven years of user studies; six browsers; three software vendors; one user behavior.
Recently, my findings have been confirmed in independent studies by several others. This is truly a general phenomenon that characterizes user behavior across sites and studies. User studies typically find:
- users comment on the content first; if the content is not relevant, then they don't care about any other aspect of the design
- when they arrive on a page, users ignore navigation bars and other global design elements: instead they look only at the content area of the page
- users don't understand where they are in a website's information architecture
- users are extremely goal-driven and look only for the one thing they have in mind - they don't spend much time on promotions for anything else
- in pursuit of their goal, users often rely on search as their main hunting strategy
- users rarely look at logos, mission statements, slogans, or any other elements they consider fluff (in particular, they ignore advertising and anything that looks like an ad)
- if a page does not appear relevant to the user's current goals, then the user will ruthlessly click the Back button after two to three seconds
- if users don't understand a certain design element, they don't spend time learning it - instead, they ignore it and continue the hunt for their own goal
Some analysts conclude that navigation is useless and that navigation elements should be removed from Web pages. Don't try teaching users the site structure, don't try showing them where they are, don't try telling them where else they can go. Instead, just show people content. I don't fully agree with this analysis.
Navigation is overdone on many sites. In particular, the so-called spoke design where every page is linked to every other page leads to reduced usability. Similarly, many sites have overblown footers that link to too many meta-features (say, "about the company" or a privacy statement).
There is no reason to mention all features of the site on all pages. Instead, select a very small number of highly useful features and limit pervasive linking to maybe five or six things like search: users turn to search when they are lost, and you cannot predict when that may happen. Less is more: having a small number of standard links on every page makes it more likely that users will notice those links they do need. In contrast, a link like "how to contact us" can safely be relegated to the home page, which is where users will go when they need it. (Exception: Contact info also needs to be on order confirmation pages.)
Similarly, a news site does not need to list all the headlines in the margin of every news article. Nor is it necessary to link to all the other sections. Restrict linking to basic features (say, search, copyright, and a few more), the home page, and the main page for the current section. Then use the available space to add useful links to related articles and to the author's biography.
Do not link to all sections of the site from all pages. What is the probability that a user will go from looking at hairdryers to looking at grunge music? More to the point: what is the probability that the user will need the link on the one day in human history when he or she wants to make this transition. Why not just go back to the home page (one click to a page that is already cached and thus displays in half a second if coded correctly).
Instead, provide links to all levels of the hierarchy above the current location. Breadcrumb trails serve two purposes:
- the context of the current page (how it is nested) allows users to interpret the page better (you don't just know that you are looking at product 354, you also know that it belongs to the widget product family)
- the links allow users to go directly to a higher level of the site in case the current page is not what they wanted, but they do want something similar
True, users will often ignore the structural links, but sometimes they will notice them, especially when they are interested in understanding a page better. Without structural links, pages become orphans that are not contextualized. And since users often arrive at pages through search or other means that bypass the higher-level navigation pages, it is necessary to provide a path back to these higher levels. In particular, it is useful to link to a page that provides an overview of the current subsite or region.
Local links to related content are also very useful. Users rarely land directly at the desired page, especially when using a search engine. But they often get close. Close, but no cigar, as far as most sites are concerned, since it is rare to find links to similar or related pages.
- similar products that are a little cheaper or a little more expensive than the current product (if you only try to upsell, you will lose trust)
- related products that go well with the current one (but only cross-sell relevant products; not whatever happens to be overstocked in your warehouse - specials are for another part of the site)
- products that differ from the current product in some important dimension (for example, link to a color printer if the user is looking at a black-and-white printer)
- different versions of the current product (for example, the same blouse in yellow) - note that such links may be considered attribute manipulation and not true hypertext navigation
- earlier or later versions of the topic discussed on the page
- background information
- author biographies and lists of other articles by the same author
- a message board or other discussion about the current topic
- news about the current topic (but not all news)
Structure Can Help
Hypertext research from the 1980s showed that structure does help users navigate. Structure has been under-valued on the Web for four reasons:
- Most sites have miserable information architectures that mirror the way the company internally thinks about the content and not the way users think about the content. Predictably, users ignore such unhelpful structure.
- Most page designs have hidden the important structural information among a flood of irrelevant information (say, links to all possible other options), preventing users from identifying the structure.
- All Web browsers have neglected the need to visualize structural information. Pre-Web hypertext systems often did this, and the research showed that good structural visualizations (not whizzy 3D views) helped substantially.
- Users are so impatient on the Web that they don't take time to learn about any individual website and its structure — instead, they proceed to the next site.
Only the last of these four reasons is fundamental. Websites can be designed better. And I predict that Internet Explorer version 8.0 will be the first good Web browser that actually helps users navigate.
Even user impatience can be overcome. True, most users will treat most sites superficially. But some users will take the time to learn some sites, once those sites become worth learning. In the future, it will become an important competitive parameter to treat loyal users so well that they will want to learn more about the site and to make it possible for them to do so. (While maintaining a design that is approachable by the larger number of users who just want to visit briefly.)