Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Nielsen on dangers of challenging navigation

A recent article on Jakob Nielsen's site talks about the dangers of challenging navigation. The conclusions drawn from user research observations are interesting, but I feel they're only covering half the issue.

The consequences of difficult navigation are probably unsurprising to you:
...when people have to exert more energy in order to find a piece of information or manipulate a feature, they can become more vigilant and suspicious. Instead of just putting an item in the shopping cart and flying through the checkout, they may want to examine other options... They may start to question the credibility of your content, the reputation of your company, and the honesty of consumer reviews. The result of this lack of confidence may be a decrease in your visitors taking the actions you want them to take...
So, a real cost to breaking Steve Krug's golden rule - "Don't make me think!"

The article is really interesting, going on to pick on 4 navigation no-nos observed again and again over the past 5 years, including an example of each - before and after a fix.

The reason I say they're only covering half the issue is that the focus is on particular design elements and not on the wording of the navigation itself.

In particular, point 3 highlights something we do on the University of Edinburgh website. At deeper points we have overview pages which repeat in the body what is already listed in the navigation panel, adding extra text to help explain the link.

At least that's the theory anyway. Supporting text is poor at times admittedly, with little or no value being added. But that's a by-product of how we manage our website.

In the article, this approach is highlighted as something we shouldn't do as we are essentially doubling the number of items a visitor needs to scan before making a decision. This may well be a very valid point, but it set me wondering:

  • What about when it's really difficult to express a link destination in the small number of characters available in a navigation panel? We have an awful lot of non-specialist web publishers with limited time who don't/can't craft their link text over and over. More space in the body of the page makes it easier for them to write something meaningful. If we abandoned the explained links in the page body and relied only on the short versions in the panel, how would unclear link text, acronyms and the like impact on the visitor's navigational strain?
  • Steve Krug talks about satisficing behaviour - picking the first thing that seems like a viable option without considering everything presented - something I've seen first hand again and again. Nielsen's own eyetracking research and link writing guidance says much the same (think about the golden triangles and F-shapes). So while the reader has "...twice as many choices to scan..." do they do that anyway?
  • If a website visitor encounters navigation panel text expanded on an overview page throughout the website, how long are they going to read both sets for? Not long, I'd suggest. However, at Cornell University (the article's example) it doesn't take much of a journey through the site to see editorial conventions and navigational layouts change. So in a case such as this, I can see how intermittently adopting this approach would increase the visitor's need to scan.

I wouldn't dream of saying "I'm right and Nielsen Norman Group are wrong" on this point, but I do think they've been selective in their example to make their point. And I think it's not wholly consistent with what Nielsen and Krug have said about trends in website user navigational behaviour. So not I'm 100% convinced, but we do need to weigh up the pros and cons of how we currently present and explain our navigation and overview pages...

What do you think? 

Four Dangerous Navigation Approaches that Can Increase Cognitive Strain - article by Jen Cardello for Nielsen Norman Group

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