Bad Navigation – #1 Usability Sin

(via Usability News): Neil Walker has a brief article over at Net Imperative called The Seven Sins of Usability. The number 1 sin:

Inconsistent and confusing site navigation

He writes:

Effective site navigation is important from the outset of a visitor’s journey so relevant links should be included to take visitors directly to related landing pages from search engines. Marketers need to remember that search is closely linked with the way their site works. Once on a site, visitors do not want to waste time clicking around to find what they want and will leave if they cannot locate the necessary navigation buttons. Do not rely on visitors to use forward and back arrows to navigate their way around as many people prefer to click directly through to the next page so clear signposting is essential for users to find what they are looking for. The key is to have a strong structure that is simple, effective and consistent throughout.

I agree that you shouldn’t rely on the back and forward buttons of the browsers, but I’m not sure about the blanket statement that people “prefer to click directly through to the next page.” Maybe, maybe not. Really, you’re navigation should supporting the optimal movement through your site without relying solely on the back button, but you should also account for the back button in your scheme.

Clear signposts–yes. Strong structure–sure. Consistent, effective navigation–of course. But it’s not that easy to achieve. Designing good navigation remains one of the thorniest parts of web design.

#4 refers to an overuse of industry jargon. This is also something I cover in Designing Web Navigation in Chapter 5, “Labeling Navigation.” Here an excerpt from that chapter:

Speak the Language of the User

The site should speak in terms visitors can understand naturally. It’s easy, however, for site designers to assume that others know the same terms and abbreviations they do. This may not always be the case. There are several aspects of labeling that potentially cause a mismatch in understanding. You should avoid company lingo, technical terminology, clever labels, and abbreviations while using the appropriate tone of voice.

Avoid Company Lingo
Company lingo creeps into web sites all too easily and all too often. Such jargon confuses more than it helps. In rare circumstances, where a brand name has become a household word, for instance, marketing-speak might be acceptable. But if you are inventing new products and words, chances are the “outside world” won’t understand them. And people don’t click on what they don’t understand.

Realistically, however, some products and services have trademarked names. There may even be business requirements to have a term appear in its trademarked form. In these cases, qualifying and enhancing a label with explanatory text would be helpful. Include the jargon if you have to, but explain it for better understanding.

Avoid Technical Terminology
Most visitors to a given site are not as web savvy as those who created it. Not everyone knows what a plug-in is, what a secure server refers to, or even what they can do with a sitemap. If visitors have to choose a bandwidth to view a video clip, will they know how many megabits their Internet connection is? Perhaps not. It’s best to use everyday language for clarity.

Be sure to consider the subject knowledge of your site’s target visitors; technical terminology can be precise and specific to those who do understand it.
For example, internal intranets or B2B sites may assume prerequisite knowledge of the domain, therefore technical terms will not cause problems. Or, a web site for programmers to share and exchange knowledge may require a deep understanding of the subject. On general web sites, however, subject-specific language and technical terminology may confuse, be sure to clarify any uses with simple text as well.

Avoid Clever Labels
Clever, cool, or cute labels are usually self-defeating. It may be more interesting to come up with labels that play on words while designing a site, but it’s not fun for people trying to navigate by them later.

If you feel compelled to use a witty or playful label, be sure to explain it such a way that it is understandable. Provide context or other cues as to what the label should convey. Don’t assume that people will be curious or will explore the category to figure out what a label means.

Both clever labels and abbreviations present particular problems for non-native speakers of the site’s language. Labels that play on words, use slang, or refer to idioms may be completely meaningless to a non-native speaker. Abbreviations may also require prior knowledge that can confuse. If your site has an international reach, be particular careful about the labels you choose in these respects.

Avoid Abbreviations
Abbreviations save space, but can prevent people from scanning for the right keywords quickly. Some visitors may not even understand certain abbreviations at all. Not everyone knows what FAQ, PDF, or RSS mean, for instance.

If you use abbreviations, be sure that visitors will understand them. Intranets and business-to-business sites may be able to use abbreviations without problem if users are domain experts. But on the open Web, abbreviations can stop people in their tracks.

Even so, there may be situations where common abbreviations are OK. The abbreviation “IRS,” the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S., is so pervasive in America that it would be difficult to find an American visiting the site who doesn’t know what IRS stands for. There is a clear shared reference amongst American taxpayers. Links such as Contact IRS and About IRS are fine in this situation. Even the URL uses the abbreviation:

Note that screen readers often have a hard time with abbreviations. The vocalization software tries to make words out abbreviations. Abbreviations for U.S. state names, for example, may sound like ahhk for AK (Alaska) or wah for WA (Washington). You can use an abbreviation tag to correlate abbreviations with their full meaning.

Use Appropriate Tone of Voice
Labels on an investment banking site generally have a different tone of voice than those on a teen music site. The one is formal and business-like; the other young and modern. It’s important to understand the appropriate tone a certain target audience expects.
Tone of voice also supports brand. Whether or not slang or popular terms are used, for instance, can reflect the values of the organization. How visitors are addressed is also important. Whether you call personal profile My Stuff or Your Personal Information makes a difference. A mismatch in tone of voice to brand may negatively affect credibility as well.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

One comment

  1. Jonathan

    It should be easy enough to collect a body of research to support or refute the statement “people prefer to click directly through to the next page”. Why anyone can therefore make such a statement without any such justification for it makes me want to simply ignore Neil Walker entirely.

    It’s about time that usability “professionals” started to come out of academic kindergarten and behave responsibly when making assertions about their field of interest.

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