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Web Navigation and How Not To Piss Off Visitors

August 15th, 2007 by harknell

So, you’ve probably decided on using WordPress to host your site, but now you need to really think about what you’re trying to put up on the web, and how you want people to interact with it. Since we’re all somewhat experienced with the basics of how the internet works, we have all seen many different webpage designs and implementations. As time has gone on, things have somewhat distilled down to a few basic rules about how a webpage should work. We all expect some kind of navigation area, with buttons or links to connect us to the different parts of the website. We expect that the main page of a site (usually index.html or index.php) will be it’s intro or news page where you will find the nav area) Beyond this, things can get a bit fluid depending on what the site is designed for. This is where life for a website designer gets to be difficult.

There is one big dilemma that most new website creators encounter: Different or the Same. Do I want my site to be different and unique, or look the same and consistent with people’s expectations. To some degree this is dependant on the goals of the site. It is my opinion that in 90% of all cases you should choose to look similar to expectations. In a small amount of cases, looking and acting totally different from other sites can work….these cases usually revolve around “artistic” sites that are specifically designed to show off something unique about the web creator, but they are NOT meant to be information sites or to allow the user to really get in touch with the artist or their work (think all show, no real depth). They act like a picture in a museum–nice to look at, but of no real informational value other than a pretty picture. Even in these cases I would suggest you consider otherwise. I know there will be many people screaming at this, but there is a bigger issue here.

Consider this: In studies done on average websurfers, if the person is unable to discern what they are supposed to do on your site within 7 seconds of arriving at your site, they tend to leave. As a design function, it is best to make it very obvious what is on your site, and how to get to this information. While this might seem boring or inartistic from a design perspective, it’s important for your overall main goal:having people come back and use your site, not just look once and leave.

Many website designers fall prey to the “designers dilemma”. This is where you as the designer come to believe that everyone who goes to your site automatically knows as much about the site as you do. Imagine you are going to a meeting somewhere you’ve never been, to a building you’ve never been inside. You walk inside the building–what do you want to know first? Well, it’d be good to have a panel or sign saying where all of the offices are. It would also be good to have this sign give all of the company names and what floors they are on, and maybe in the case of a big multi-floor company, exactly which floor houses each department of that company. Many website designers forget this experience. Grouping of information on pages should be as obvious as possible. You aren’t in the business of hiding information. Just because YOU know that the company Bio or About info is listed on the financial page doesn’t mean everyone else will consider that the “correct” place to put that information.

In addition, keep in mind that symbols and pictures are not universal in understanding. Anyone who has seen Japanese symbols for things knows that in many cases pictures have hugely different meanings to different people. A picture of a house could mean homepage, or for a financial company it could be their their rental/house sales page. I personally think that words are better than symbols, but a word AND symbol combo can help people remember things easier in some cases. (also, remember to use alt tags for all navigation images…on handheld devices and some work computers images off is the regular setup)

A top or left side nav bar is the norm these days. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s what people expect. Putting your nav bar on the bottom of the page might make you different, but remember, some people might have a different screen dimension setup from you (like 800X600 instead of 1024X768) and it might not even be visible once the page loads….therefore 7 seconds later the person is gone. Also, you might want to take a look at a book about color interactions. Some color combinations react poorly together and can make it hard for people to read or use the site, especially if they have altered their browsers basic settings. White text on a black background might be nice to you, but it could be unreadable to someone else. Most people have white or light colored background on their computers.

The most important things to imagine in setting up the content of your page is to assume that your visitors are from mars and have no idea what to do. Imagine they are so new to things that they need their hands held. The important element of your page is the information it carries. While with style sheets and tables it’s somewhat possible to dictate how your page will look…it’s not a total lock. Different browsers and personal settings (including leaving images off and different screen resolutions) will always make your pages somewhat out of your control in how they look….but you have control over the content. By keeping the focus on the information, and not the trendy look, you can make sure that visitors to your site get the information they need…which is the main function of your site.

One last area needs to be discussed: The pull of your needs versus the viewer’s needs. Many sites make one huge navigation design faux pas….they disregard the time it takes a visitor to do certain functions. Imagine you are a store….What do you want most from a visitor? Well, I’d say it would be a purchase and getting their money. Why then do many sites force a potential customer to fill out a form or create a login id first? In these cases, the site has decided it’s needs (which they mistakenly decided was getting your email or info above getting a sale) are more important than your desire to quickly and easily buy something. It’s silly really, as a result of going through the checkout you always add this information anyway. Why not get the sale, then afterward have an option to create an id or account…or fill out a survey. You get both and the person feels like they’ve accomplished THEIR goal.

It’s the same with many non-store sites also. Watch our flash intro, or fill out this form to be able to download our demo. Yeah, I know that information is worth money to these companies….but it isn’t worth anything to ME. It’s actually a negative. Keep this in mind.

If you can get someone else to test your site before it goes live, someone who has no idea of it’s content, this can give you a good idea of what the average person will encounter. You might be surprised.

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