Euro IA 2007 – Are Halland: Cores and Paths

Euro IA 2007 was really great this year. Fantastic presenters and talks. Euro IA is maturing into a real quality event in all respects.

My favorite presentation was Are Halland‘s Cores and Paths talk, which he also gave in Las Vegas at the IA Summit in N. America. Here are the slides for Cores and Paths on SlideShare.

The idea is brilliantly simple: First, you have a core. This could be content, a feature, functionality, or even a work flow. Find what that is and design it first. Note that in doing this you necessarily have to get clarity from stakeholders and from the project team as to what it is that you should focus on.

Don’t start with the homepage, Are reminds us. This is also something I discuss in Designing Web Navigation too. To quote myself:

“Very often, a site’s navigation is created from the top down. The designer starts with the home page and determines all the ways to reach various parts of the site level by level. By the time the content pages are reached further down in the site, the system is more or less fleshed out, and the routes to those pages are already locked into place.

From a user’s standpoint, however, the home page may be the least interesting page on the site. It’s usually a mere stop on their way to where they are going. They care much more about the information and services your site has to offer. Of course, the home page often plays a key role in giving an overview, such as with Intranets and news sites, but it’s usually not the target page visitors are seeking.

Further, people may not enter the site on the home page. They may follow a link from a search engine, an online advertisement, or from another site. They may not have the chance to re-trace those top-down routes to content pages you’ve carefully planned out. Therefore you also need consider how people will get to your content from locations other than the home page. This leads a simple but important piece of advice:

Don’t start by designing the navigation on the home page

Then you have to design the paths into that core and out of the core. The inward paths are about findability. Think of all the ways people can get to your core. The outward paths add value to the business. They expose related content or additional products.

As I commented at this session during the Q&A period, the best models are a.) simple and b.) obvious. All too often we think that if it’s not earth shattering, it’s not worth saying. But sometimes stating the obvious is a Very Good Thing. Try it.

And in terms of design models, the simplest are the best. People remenber them and can use them. Heck, I wrote this post pretty much without relying on the presentation or any of my notes. Stravinsky once said something to effect that there is a still all of good music to be written in the key of C. Web design still has long way to develop and continue maturing.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


  1. Pingback: Euro IA 2007 - Navigating the Long Tail « Experiencing Information

  2. When I first saw this, I thought it was *too* simple; it seemed to require lots of refactoring to revisit each core as new paths are created.

    But maybe, like in agile, all that refactoring is a good thing.

    Scaling is a bitch in navigation though. Did he mention if this has been used on any large scale projects yet?

  3. James Kalbach

    Don’t know if Are has used it in any large-scale projects yet–he didn’t mention. I’ve had experience with designing content pages first (as the quote above suggests), but not in a systematic manner like Are lays out. I’m trying Cores and Paths on a project right and will find out how it goes. Olly Wright is also apparently using this approach with clients.

    Jared Spool makes similar recommendations in his talk on Why Good Content Must Suck:

    Designing from the homepage also has a lot of refactoring, so I’d think you don’t add any more with Cores and Path. But refactoring isn’t a bad thing, is it? I mean, Design is about iteratively refining of an initial idea anyway. In a way, this approach makes navigation design truly Design and not just an exercise to fill up a site map or wireframes.

    Also, if you’ve done persona and scenario work correctly, you should have a limited set of cores to design for, even with a large site. So the Cores and Paths approach should force strategic decisions to be made and require stakeholders to confront what it is they really want to accomplish with the site…more so than just talking about what widgets they want on the homepage.

    As I suggest in my post, there are a lot more obvious things about web design yet to be discovered–some of which are real simple ideas.

  4. Thank you for the kind words, Jim! I’m still pondering whether the model is banal or brilliant. But what I have found is that it’s a superb Thought Tool and great for communication within a team or with clients.

    As for large-scale info projects: Obviously the model itself does NOT solve all problems in any project. What it CAN do, is to make sure we’re keeping focus on the right things in large projects. When we deepdive in to information models, ontologies, taxonomies, etc – keeping an eye on the core(s) of our site can be very helpful indeed.

    I think it was Alan Cooper who said about personas that it is “the bright light under which we do our surgery”. A similar remark could be made about a core model for your large scale project.

    Maybe the most important thing about the model, I think, is the shift of perspective away from websites and towards findable (and actionable) objects…

  5. James Kalbach

    David St. Hubbins jokingly says in the movie Spinal Tap: “There’s a fine line between genius and stupidity.”

    I’m going to put Cores and Paths on the genius side.

    The shift you mention, Are, is a really important one, as simple as it may be. And it’s one we have to deal with in the world of mashups and RSS and so forth. Cores and Paths makes IAs think like real Designers (finally), and that’s brilliant.

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