Getting Around: Navigation
Navigation is one of the key problems with site usability, as good navigation enables users to get from the home page to the information they seek, and then to the next bit of information after that, and so on.
Navigation is invisible and unnoticed if it's working properly, and only draws remarks when it is not.
Some sites, especially those in the travel and financial services industries, assume that the user has a good level of familiarity with the business. Presumably, this is because the tasks that a user performs used to be done by a trained professional (a travel agent or a stockbroker) with in-depth knowledge, and the same patterns were imposed on the "civilian" user.
Sites that fared better were those where the design didn't presume any knowledge of the subject matter and, better yet, were design to accommodate various mental models. For example, Edmunds was the most usable site, and allows a user to start their search by any of a handful of parameters (type of vehicle, manufacturer, price range, etc.)
While the organization of content into topic and subtopic helps users find their way to the information they need, most users do not develop a "mental model" of a Web site - when lost, they do not recall what how the page or topic they were viewing related to the overall structure of the Web site.
The organization of a large site into "sub sites" is particularly confusing, especially when a sub-site is self-contained and there is no clear way to navigate back to the site's "main" home page.
Some elements were effective to facilitate navigation:
- Frames - Are actually quite good, in that they keep navigation on-screen when the user scrolls
- In-Page anchors - Are generally good at enabling users to find content within a long page.
- Navigation bars - When a user gets "lost" in the middle of a screen, they will scroll back to the top to seek navigation.
- Back Button - "Many" people used the back button to go back a page after taking a wrong turn.
Some elements were not effective to facilitate navigation:
- Site Maps - A table of contents as a separate page is ignored by most users until they get lost. Even then, it's an inconvenient and time-consuming method of navigation. A site index, listing every single page on the site (not just a map of the main categories) is not significantly better.
- Hierarchical maps - Were not useful because users do not learn the structure of the site and do not have context for the present page's relationship to the site's information architecture.
- Breadcrumbs - Showing the path to the current page from the home page, are largely useless. In all of their testing, only one subject clicked a link in the breadcrumb trail.
- FAQs - Were rarely used.
- Back Button - Except when attempting to recover from a "wrong" click, users did not use the back button, but relied on the navigation to return to the previous page (e.g. going from a menu, to an item, back to the menu).
- Home Pages - in some instances, users would return to the site's home page repeatedly rather than using navigation to jump from one part of the site to another, even when the links were plainly evident.
Some elements frustrated navigation:
- In-Page anchors - Frustrated users when the page was short, or the anchor near to the bottom, such that the intended target did not appear at the very top of the screen.
- Multiple FAQ pages - Confused users when there was more than one FAQ (more than one menu of questions,. not more than one question) in various locations of a site, or when the content of the FAQ differed in different sections and was not clearly labeled.