Forks in the Road
Where am I? How did I get here? What’s over there? How do I get there?
We ask ourselves these questions all the time because much of our lives are spent navigating from one place to another.
Throughout human history, people in unfamiliar territory have used guides and landmarks such as street signs, clock towers, and rivers to help find their way. A keen eye for the stars kept people on the right path for thousands of years. A hundred years ago, you may have said, “I came to a fork in the road, so I pulled out my compass, determined which path led north, and followed it.”
With the advent of the internet and GPS, navigation in the physical world became much different. The story now looks more like this: “I came to a fork in the road, so I pulled up Google maps to see which branch would get me to my destination most quickly. It told me I could get there five minutes faster with the left fork.”
It’s tempting to take our navigation experience in the physical world and transpose it onto navigation in the digital space. In reality, it’s not that easy. If we are using a website we’ve never been to before, our story might be something like this: “I came to a fork in the road. So I punched a term into the search bar and teleported to a completely different forest.”
When users try to navigate your site, you need to be the map, the compass, the street sign maker, and the GPS. You need to provide quick and easy answers to users’ most fundamental questions: Where am I? How did I get here? What’s over there? How do I get there?
Let’s look at how smart website navigation and labeling helps to answer each of these questions:
Where am I?
A website with proper breadcrumb navigation will show users, “You are here.” Combine this feature with proper sectional navigation to show users how the page they are on fits into the surrounding area: What section is this page a part of? Show them what further exploration will yield: What related information is available?
How did I get here?
Breadcrumb navigation can’t really answer this question because users can jump to any depth on your site from anywhere. The answer is most commonly found in the browsing history. Since browsing history displays page titles, it’s important that titles be accurate and unique for each page of your site. A standardized titling convention allows someone to see all the pages they’ve visited on your site and quickly jump back to an earlier page. Additionally, when users bookmark a page, a clear title will ensure they find it again. The example below shows how my recent visit to Webster University is clearly archived through proper titling:
What’s over there?
It’s important to be explicit with labeling. Navigation links should match page titles exactly, so users know what they will be looking at before they commit, and won’t be frustrated or confused when you lead them somewhere different than what was promised.
How do I get there?
The answer to this question seems obvious, but if you are answering, “What’s over there?,” you also should be providing a way to get there. If the copy on the page describes information contained on another part of your website, make sure you provide a way to get there.
Proper contextual links in the body copy of your pages give users the means to immediately explore something that catches their eye. These links keep them engaged and interested, your ultimate goal. The contextual link to research in this example from William & Mary:
takes users to the Research and Scholarship page, allowing users to drill down into that area of interest:
In Part 2 of this post, I’ll explore the types of user browsing behavior and what information architecture elements are most important to each one.