Situate Follow-Ups in Context

by Jakob Nielsen on December 20, 2004

Summary: Make new or follow-up information easily accessible from the location of the original information or transaction.

Usability is often enhanced when people can find follow-up transactions on the page where they conducted their first transaction. Conversely, usability is reduced if the original page contains no hint of what people might need to do at a later stage.

Some examples:

  • We recently tested an intranet's e-learning area as part of our new round of intranet usability research . One of the e-learning area tasks was for users to cancel their scheduled participation in a certain course. Rather than use the intranet's registration management feature, almost all users went straight to the course page where they'd originally signed up. Unfortunately, this page offered no link for withdrawing from the course.
  • In e-commerce usability , users typically look for product-related items on the main product's page. To buy ink for a specific fountain pen, for example, most people go to the page that sells that pen and hope it lists (or links to) compatible refill cartridges. People almost never go immediately to a special "supplies" or "support" area, though many websites keep related products there to mirror the company's organization. Even if you have an independent support organization, you should link to its offerings from the main page of each supported product.
  • On, when people visit the page for a book they've already ordered, there's a prominent box at the top of the page that notes the order and offers an easy link to track it.

As these examples show, users typically return to a previous location to follow-up on related actions. Familiar places are easy to find and create less mental resistance than having to actively construct new, independent actions.

What Not to Do

Here's an example of a well-intentioned but failed design from the IRS (the US tax authorities):

  1. The site has a category page for small businesses that clearly lists relevant information for this target audience. So far, so good.
  2. One of the top entries is "New Treasury Regulations Could Benefit Some Small Business Taxpayers." Horrible microcontent : vague wording and no keywords that indicate which small businesses might benefit from the new rules. Weasel words like "could" and "some" have little place in Web links and headlines. Furthermore, the phrase "small business taxpayers" is wasted word count: we can assume that any story on the IRS website is tax-related and, given that this story is on the small-business category page, it had better have something to do with small businesses.
  3. Redeeming the IRS Web designers slightly, the deck (summary below the headline) offers a few specifics: the new rules allow a "Section 179" deduction of up to $100,000 until 2006. The section number is obviously more relevant to bureaucrats than to users. Still, including it is okay, because it marks the link with high information scent for users who've heard about the specific regulation and are there to find out more. I'd simply prefer that the bureaucratese be less prominent, and more emphasis be given to human-readable keywords (such as "capital investments and computer software").
  4. Users who follow the link arrive at a press release that explains the rules in slightly better language, but it's still rather vague about what people can actually deduct.
  5. At the end of the press release are links to the full information. Good: this complies with several guidelines for press releases on websites .
  6. Here's the kicker that transforms this scenario from a mediocre user experience to a miserable failure: the top link points to a draft of the rules from July 2004, even though the press release was a featured link on the small-business page in December 2004. (Adding insult to injury, this draft is presented in PDF format; this violates our findings from user research with journalists, which clearly found that they widely detest PDF as a component of online public relations.)
  7. What should be done : at a minimum, the designers should replace the press release's link to obsolete information with a link to updated information. Even better, instead of linking to a press release half a year later, the small-business category page should link to an article that clearly explains the new regulations in language that's understandable to the average small-business person.

When you post an announcement, plan to update it after the event. Most users are interested in actionable information that's relevant to them — in this case, how to deduct $100,000 — as opposed to your project's history. Post the follow-up and link to it from the original story.

Contextual Links

Although it has some limited use, global navigation is overrated . Contextual navigation offers much more value, providing direct links to elements that are highly relevant to the user's current location (and presumably their current interest).

Follow-up actions are an obvious form of contextual link. Let's offer more follow-up links, please.

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