In IA Thought, Information Architecture
Summary: In web projects, "navigation" has come to mean the menus for getting around a site. But people find their way through a software environment in many ways.

In many web projects, “navigation” has come to mean the menus for getting around the various areas of a site. Likewise, we often see web teams assuming that the act of “navigating” is mainly confined to those menu systems. But thinking of navigation this way misses how people actually find their way through a software environment.

Humans evolved to figure out the environment through motion and picking up visual information from their entire surroundings. So even when we are faced with a screen full of pixel-rendered interface elements and labels, links and buttons, our natural inclination is to interact with those elements as an environment that is whole—not something carved into separate areas for “reading” and “navigating.”

How Humans Navigate in the Physical World

Think of the last time you visited a new place, such as a town or city, a museum, or even an amusement park. While all of these tend to offer some sort of map with labels and diagrams of how the place is structured, we don’t depend on those tools for every step we take. We expect the environment around us to have cues for where we should go. And when doing so, we walk and move through it as a way to understand it. If we have to stop and think about it too much, we’re actually pulled out of the immediacy of the experience.

At Disney parks, for example, there are appropriately proportioned openings in the vista that encourage movement in those directions, and where visitors can count on finding their way to other major areas of the park, without having to use some strange tributary tucked off to the side instead. (I’ve been to other amusement parks that are not so successful in this, and find myself constantly getting lost in them.)

In a well-architected hotel, the lobby is not hard to find—the structure of the passageways gives cues about moving from peripheral areas to the hotel’s main chambers. But hotels with lobby entrances contorted around bearing walls (or elevators tucked into hidden alcoves) can be very confusing, requiring guests to concentrate on learning which way to go rather than letting the environment nudge them in the right directions.

Do we use maps and labels to assist us in finding our way through these environments? Absolutely! But we use them to assist us, as supplement, not as our primary interface with our surroundings. That is, not unless we have to.

Information Foraging, or Navigation by Smell

Software environments are not exactly the same as most physical environments. There are no physical, three-dimensional structures to give us cues that a major passageway is ahead, or a stairway up or down. Software relies entirely on language and screen graphics to give any sense of structure and relevance.

In human-computer-interaction theory, the way in which users find their way through semantic information systems is called “information foraging.” In essence, studies show that people work their way through screen-based information environments the way creatures sniff and scan their way through an unfamiliar wilderness.

They’ll look for anything that “smells like” whatever partially-formed (often subconscious, barely articulated) concept they’re trying to explore—trigger words, or other signifiers like pictures—and they’ll tap or click that first. For example, people will tap a picture of a kitchen sink hoping it will get them closer to something for renovating the kitchen. If there’s nothing immediately affording of that scent, they’ll either start looking around in menus or just type something into a search field to see what the environment gives back to them.

The key, then, is to make use of the entire view presented to the user as a canvas for generating affordances and cues for relevant triggers—the words and pictures representing a range of concepts that might be of relevant value to a visitor. On a retail e-commerce site, for example, rather than squandering so much “real estate” on a giant banner ad, assuming users will find more specific guidance in the site menus, make use of the center of the screen to present a range of “scents” that get the user closer to what they are looking for.

Don’t squeeze navigation into slivers of your interface; instead, open it up to a richer, more informative environment for your users.

Andrew Hinton is the author of Understanding Context, an O’Reilly book about how users touch, navigate, and comprehend environments made of language and pixels, and how to make those places better.

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