Navigating isn’t fun

The artless Websites created during the Web’s infancy were of necessity built only with simple HTML tags, and were forced to divide up their functionality and content into a maze (a web?) of separate pages. This made a navigation scheme an unavoidable component of any Website design, and of course, a clear, visually arresting navigation scheme was better than an obscure or hidden one. But many Web designers have incorrectly deduced from this that users want navigation schemes. Actually, they’d be happy if there were no navigation at all.

This misunderstanding is rooted in the excitement that accompanied the arrival of the new medium and the enthusiasm of its many new adherents. The first Web users found pleasure, rightfully so, in merely exploring the alluring vastness and fecundity of the new phenomenon of the Web. Surfing was thrilling not only for its novelty, but for that strong sense of satisfaction that comes from exploration and discovery. In the beginning, everyone is equally an explorer—it’s fun to get an email from a friend with a link to some random Website, then follow a random link from that site to another, which might provoke a distant thought about a related topic to search for, ad infinitum. The Web can be a stimulating wash of engrossing information.

Popular computer games added to the confusion. Much of the value of games comes from the player’s joy of exploration and discovery-from navigating. One of the main goals of a game designer is to obscure significant parts of the program, posing problems and making the answers difficult to discern so that navigating through the mystery becomes an important challenge for the game player. The program hides its internal structure and organization just like Agatha Christie hides the motivations and methods of a murderer from her readers. If you play computer games, it’s likely that you love the thrill of the quest.

Contrarily, in business software, the interaction designer’s job is completely opposite from the game designer’s. A well-designed business program must make its structure and organization as clear as possible. Users don’t want to waste time solving the mystery of where resources and information are hidden. A well-designed business program doesn’t act as the user’s opponent, pitting him against his tools, forcing him to ask, "Where are the tools? Where are the answers? Where is the related information? How do I get back to where I was?" It’s not productive for the company and it isn’t much fun for the user. And ultimately, it will cause the user to either abandon the site, or abandon the Web altogether, both of which have been common occurrences lately.

For those young and enthusiastic Web designers who are personally thrilled by the daily joy of discovery that comes from surfing the Web, navigating and exploring have come to seem an intrinsic end in itself. Exploring and navigating is their goal, and they have assumed a similar desire for discovery in the many Web users to which their sites cater. But these designers have fallen victim to a malady known as self-referential design. Regardless of how much typical users might share the designer’s joy in discovery, they rarely share it with the same vigor or depth, particularly when they are trying to buy something or get work done at the office.

Once a beginner’s enthusiasm wears off after a few uses of the Web, she would just like to get her work done in the simplest and most straightforward way possible. Instead of building a complex structure of pages, a better design technique is to concentrate all of the interaction in a single screen, relieving the user of the need to explore, of the need to navigate at all. To the user, each successive screen is the equivalent of a new window or dialog in conventional software. My axiom is: "A window is another room. Have a good reason to go there." If the user is working on information on one screen, don’t send her to another screen to work on that same information. The better place is right there on screen number one.

Skilled Web developers using modern browsers and site construction tools such as ActiveX and JavaScript can create easier to use single-screen interactions that don’t require jumping around from page to page. Yet many Web designers continue to divide, and divide again, their sites into many fractured pages. These hierarchical arrangements of screens force them to impose a navigational burden on their users. And those same Web designers who still thrill to their game-like nightly surf sessions of discovery don’t see that this isn’t fun or productive for their users. It isn’t rewarding for people who have to get work done. Sure, those users might like to do a little surfing of their own after-hours, but navigating a B2B site is just another unnecessary and unpleasant burden. If you want to design simpler, better Websites for business or commerce, try putting more interaction into fewer screens so your users don’t have to navigate so much.

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”

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