Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Navigational State of Confusion

June 27, 2007

People like to know where they are in the world. This is true of people hiking on trails in the woods and it’s true of people navigating websites and online applications. But not everyone who makes websites understands this, it seems.

I recently came across a troubling article that clearly illustrates how a failure to understand the fundamentals of human psychology and behavior does not serve interactive designers well. The article is on navigational state properties, written, sadly, by an anonymous person on his/her weblog [1]. To be fair, the anonymous author of the article in question is not an interactive designer, but a programmer. But to be equally fair, presenting information based in ignorance for what may be an unsuspecting audience is a poor behavior no matter your area of expertise.

In any event, the article has garnered responses, so the mere fact that people are reading the article rather necessitates that someone correct its musings in some measure. If nothing else, the naïve conclusions in the article serve as a useful springboard for an examination of the relevant issues.

Fundamental Problems

The article argues that it is unnecessary for us to use link state for navigation in order to help define the user’s location in the scope of a website or web application. Among the stated reasons are 1) that the page content clearly defines the page and, therefore, the location within the site, and 2) that if we click on a link, we may be assured that we’re going to end up in that location.

There are fundamental problems with these assumptions. Do you see them? If not, perhaps the further justifications from the article will make them clearer ...while introducing more problems. The author writes:

“…if I am in my Word Processor and I select File -> New from the menu to create a new document, am I constantly reminded that I’m creating a new document? Of course not…” [sic]

He goes on to say:

“Using Flickr as an example. Viewing the site - if you scroll at the bottom of the primary page and select ‘About Us’ when you reach the targeted page you’ll note that the navigation does not show the state of that page. Because to do so, would be pointless and would not assist the user in achieving their goals.” [sic]

I guess a concise way to encapsulate all of the flaws with this thinking is to observe that design and experience is contextual. As designers, we’re beholden to the relevant context(s) of users’ experience. Part of that context is brought by the user, part of it is inherent in the environment, part is tied to the activity at hand, and part of the context is created by our own efforts in the design. As context defines factors relevant to the experience, we cannot ignore context as the other article’s author has done. The issue of navigational state declaration is contextual, not absolute.

In short: iterative tasks are fundamentally different from navigational tasks. Navigating through a website or an application is based on the idea of, well, navigation; movement.

So that’s the general observation about the flaws in the article’s arguments. Now let’s get more specific, taking the arguments in order:

Yes, the page content, even the page title, may indeed clearly define the page for us. And yes, if I clicked “Team,” I may be reasonably sure that I’m on the Team page. However, I’m also human; knowing where I am currently is certainly useful, but I have other human needs and habitual concerns.

For instance, I generally also want to know where I am in the scope of the “world” I’m currently visiting. It may be my habit to browse a local area before moving on to another locale. Knowing that I’m on the Team page does not tell me that I’m also inside the “About Us” section, where 4 other informational pages reside.

I may want to cover this section before moving on to a different one and knowing where I am helps me to make that decision. A pertinent link state, additionally with some indication of what other links are relevant to this area of the site, is very useful to me in this regard. So now, we designers have more than just link state to consider. We also likely need to apply some semblance of uniform connectedness to the family of links.

As for the word processor argument above, the example is not applicable to the context. In short: iterative tasks are fundamentally different from navigational tasks. Navigating through a website or an application is based on the idea of, well, navigation; movement. If we move, we want to maintain our bearings. This is a fundamental human need. Navigational state is useful in this regard. Creating a document in MS Word does not introduce the conceptual possibility of getting lost, nor compel us to track our navigational progress.

When the author states, “…you’ll note that the navigation does not show the state of that page. Because to do so, would be pointless and would not assist the user in achieving their goals.” he ignores a couple of salient facts:

I appreciate the anonymous author’s desire to question things that we otherwise seem to accept as necessary. That’s actually part of a designer’s mandate. But this example makes clear that those sorts of questions cannot be adequately considered without a fundamental grasp of the relevant factors. I expect that you’ll find that fundamentals — artistic, psychological, and behavioral — are usually the best place to start when trying to examine the soundness of any idea that conflicts with conventional wisdom or issues of conceptual convergence.

Fundamental soundness is the cornerstone of competence in any field. Don’t leave home without it.

Notes:

1. Sorry, I don’t link to anonymously-written articles.

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