July 13, 1998
To Ease Navigation, Know Your Users and Plan Carefully
Q: Besides providing search engines, what are companies doing to help users navigate and find information quickly on their growing intranets?
Advisor: You've recognized that even though search is a valuable tool, it does not meet all the information discovery needs of an intranet community. Companies also rely on other types of information brokers, many of them human-mediated. These tools help intranet users formulate the right questions, follow a standard sequence of activities, efficiently screen volumes of information, and identify official or sanctioned data.
You are undoubtedly already familiar with various types of information brokers. For example, TV Guide is a broker of television programming that provides not only an index but context (interviews) and quality assessments (reviews). And your company may publish a manual that brokers information on official travel policies.
From these non-Web examples, we can make two major observations: Brokers are specialized to support the needs of specific audiences or functions, and most brokers have multiple navigation modes for finding information. Both are important to keep in mind when creating Web pages and Web sites.
Efficient navigation begins with design--and the most important step here is to explicitly define your audience, their goals and concerns, and the desired outcome of their use of the intranet. Without this knowledge, you cannot provide the navigation cues visitors need to meet their--and your--objectives.
Effective navigation cues address several issues: location (Where am I now?), organization (Where is everything else?), and resources (What help is available?). To answer these questions, a site designer relies on four page-design elements: look-and-feel, predictability, structure, and organization.
An intranet's look-and-feel is more than marketing. Changes in look-and-feel as one goes from page to page raise an unconscious signal that the site, and the trusted broker, may have changed. Look-and-feel relies on identity (name, logo, perspective), style (font, colors, graphics), and page layout cues.
Predictability comes from the consistent placement of columns and frames and the use of standard navigation bars, buttons, logos, banners, and icons. A large part of each page can be unique, as long as organization and resource clues remain standard.
The structure of a site is created by a tension between how much information sits on a single page and how many pages the visitor must traverse to get to the desired outcome. The number and pattern of links also affects structure. A single link on each page creates a forced march through content, but too many pages all linked to one another create a semantic net in which the visitor can get lost.
Organization refers to the presentation of links on a page. I can think of at least seven approaches: conventional (e.g., alphabetical), experiential (commonly understood metaphors; often an imagemap), interest (perceived importance or frequency of access), relational (logical classification or site map), spatial (geographical affinities), temporal (new to old), and verbal (rhetorical or persuasive text). To accommodate the diversity of an intranet's users, most top-level pages present multiple organizations. Three seems to be the optimum choice; any more creates a cluttered look.
By identifying information brokering requirements and training brokers in good navigation practices, your organization can help users easily keep up with a growing intranet.