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Vision 2020 - Strategies for Designing Application Navigation


Strategies for Designing Application Navigation

Getting the navigation right is one of the most important aspects of design. Navigation is the framework within which screens, interaction, and the visual appearance are designed. The most basic axiom of usability is that one should make interaction with the software as easy as possible, allowing users to focus on the tasks that brought them to the software in the first place. To the extent that navigation is confusing and requires the user's attention to figure it out, usability will suffer.

Navigation Is a Metaphor
The term "navigation" conveys the idea of traveling from place to place. It suggests that there are paths you follow to get from point to point and an underlying framework that directs (and restricts) how you get there. Yet, although we talk freely about navigating through a software product, we never actually go anywhere. We stay in one place while the image on the screen changes in response to our interactions with it. So "navigation" is really a metaphor, a mental game we play to get our minds around the design.

When most people think about navigation, they focus on menus as the way to move from screen to screen. But it is quite possible to write powerful programs built around a single screen. There is a great deal of value in the simplicity of the single screen metaphor. But most programs are built around the metaphor of multiple screens (or pages). Once you decide to design your presentation layer around multiple pages, you can generate a lot of confusion. As a result of observing many usability tests, I've come to realize that every time you take users to a new page, you run the risk of disorienting them.

The failure to realize how disorienting it can be to move a user from page to page often leads to designing more pages than are needed. I've had users tell me in usability tests that they go directly to the search box to find the page they want, rather than try to contend with the site's navigation. Today we have the ability to create rich Web pages with sophisticated UI controls. Tabs, carousels, accordions, tooltips, and child windows are readily available and can reduce the amount of screen-to-screen navigation needed.

Navigation is one of those things most software folks take for granted, and as with most design questions, we tend to just look at what others are doing and follow their lead. We get imperatives from managers—"Make it look like Office" or "Make it look like Amazon.com"—but I think as developers focused on making programs work, we don't spare much time to really think about design.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have actual information architects work with us (or other jack-of-all-trades UX folks). But sometimes we expect graphics designers to handle navigation as part of their design, even though many of them do not have the expertise or background. Thankfully, there are many good resources out there that address the sticky problem of navigation, and I'd like to touch on a few here.

Source: MSDN Magazine, 23 February 2009

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