The Page Paradigm

Mark Hurst has written an interesting discussion about web pages and how people navigate. In it, he reminds us of something he wrote in 1999,

On any given Web page, users will either… click something that appears to take them closer to the fulfillment of their goal, or click the Back button on their Web browser.

The interesting part of his message here, I think, is that the IA/designers’ focus on aspects of the UI such as navigation consistency is less important than the supporting of users in getting them to their intended goal. He says provocative things such as “users don’t care where they are in the website”. If you can get your head past that idea, 3 bullets summarize what this should mean for you in practice:

  1. Identify users’ goals on each page.
  2. De-emphasize or remove any page elements (or areas of a site) that don’t help to accomplish the goal.
  3. Emphasize (or insert) those links, forms, or other elements that either take users closer to their goal, or finally accomplish it.

I’ve posted additonal personal opinions on this topic elsewhere on my weblog. Peterme discusses Mark’s ideas as well, pointing out that he shouldn’t dismiss the value of wayfinding cues in order to make the point that empasis should be placed on user needs and behaviors supporting those needs. Christina doesn’t see the harm in Mark’s oversimplification and suggests that informational cues such as breadcrumbs put the burden of mental strain on the user. It’s nice that she also suggests alternatives identified in her Widgetopia to helping users identify alternate paths related to their current task, addressing a point that I think is important — “Where can I go” is perhaps more important than “Where am I?”. Manu Sharma adds that both Peter and Mark are probably both right in this debate, but the difference in perspectives is explained by their different experiences.

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to some extent...

I totally agree that every page needs to support a user goal. I use user goals to drive content inventory, and if a page doesn't spring from user goals, then it doesn't get added.

But once you have those, I think we risk making HUGE assumptions about just how well we know the user, *and* exactly where the user wishes to drive the conversation.

The entire point of navigational consistency isn't to improve navigation across the site, it's to let the user more efficiently manage and direct the conversation they wish to have with us.

I do agree "navigation consistency" should be as unobtrusive as possible, and that a given page should focus on the goal you created the page to support, but I think we become reckless when we assume we will *always* know where the user wishes to go next, as opposed to *probably* know.

I think Hurts's take is to extreme and only applies to applications or very specific instances on typical websites (check out or user registration maybe).

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Austin Govella
Grafofini

Austin, your point about navi

Austin, your point about navigational consistency is great. I agree that it should be to help the user direct the conversation they wish to have with us.

I think consistency can refer to many aspects of how we as the site owners and IAs that determined the starting and continuing points of this dialogue present the underlying information architecture. For instance, standardizing and focussing on how we present metadata is, for me, the same as presenting localized navigation in sidebars. If presented right, it places the bait for users to pick up new conversations closer to the one presently at hand. Look at the Flamenco browser or most database front-end interfaces. Metadata fields that surface to describe the current thing being viewed offer paths to things sharing similar attributes. This is user-guided conversation that breaks out of the hierarchical model. In application UIs like these, it also serves as another way to tell people where they are and where they can go.

I've said that I don't agree that people don't care where they are. But what I took away from that statement is that they probably care more about where they can go. If you're dealing with a structure that is not confined to any one hierarchy, "where they are" is something that can be difficult to know depending on how they got there. So from Mark's statements, I liked the idea of focussing on user goals -- what do you want to accomplish, where do you need to go from here to do that. What I hear in your comment is the fear that some readers will latch on to the provocative statements -- meant, I think, to grab your attention and incite you to think a bit -- rather than taking in the valuable message of focussing on user goals as your first priority.

y'all surprise me

I'm surprised how many positive comments Mark's article has engendered in the IA community, considering how remarkably short-sighted it is. I, of course, have something to say about it.

I tend to focus on the good parts I guess and ignore the bad

I don't believe that knowing where you are is a bad idea. I think I said that pretty well on my blog. I focussed on the idea that more important is knowing what your users want and how to support that need. That's one of John Z's point in the comments on Peterme. I didn't question and his more provocative message in attacking wayfinding cues, but perhaps should have. I tend to only extract and log here the things that are useful to me in what I read/learn, but on my site I did mention that I questioned Mark's statement about people not caring where they are. I think wayfinding cues are important in those cases -- though needn't come in the form of breadcrumbs.

I do hear your point that Mark needn't attack valuable methods for supporting information seeking in order to make more important points about knowing the people interacting with your site. That seems to be a common attention-getting tactic in web punditry.

Over-simplification

I believe Mark has over-simplified the extent of what user goals could constitute in his proposal. I have come across many user scenarios where the breadcrumb (an indispensable page element that tells a user where they are) is critical in helping the user achieve his/her goals - for instance, someone who is researching on a company's products and simply traversing through the company's product taxonomy.

Then again, we could simply argue that 'research' isa user goal and hence would fall snugly back into Mark's Page Paradigm - in which case the Page Paradigm would end up supporting too many user goals, and ending where we started, an 'overly cluttered' webpage.

Breadcrumbs can be dispensable

Amidst all the hub-bub, Christina Wodtke reminds us that breadcrumbs are not indispensable at all.

The breadcrumb is indeed supplementary, and if real estate is precious, it probably can go, as long as it's key purpose-- widening a search among a large set of objects-- is preserved.

She mentions BBCi's combination of local nav and breadcrumbs as an alternative. Not that BBCi's example is necessarily a best practice, but I think it's important to remember that there may be better solutions for a given design than ye olde bread crumb.

*I* still use them. They make me feel safe. Not sure if there's a more eloquent way I can say it right now.

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Austin Govella
Grafofini