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New Ways of Navigating Websites

Website design is evolving to give users a richer and more immersive experience when they browse for information or products.  One design factor that must be taken into account as part of any type of design change, however, is navigation - the way the user moves through a site.  The designer must remember the fundamental purpose of navigation.  It is there to guide the person viewing the website to the information contained on the website, whether that is the price of bulk carrots or the design elements of the third James Bond car.  

Put simply, no matter how beautiful or interesting a site is, if a user cannot navigate, they will leave.  I had a friend who designed an utterly lovely site to showcase his photographs.  He asked me to look at it and I was impressed by both the art and the site.  However, I wondered why he had so little on it when I knew he had been working for years.  After a confusing discussion with him, it turned out that his innovative navigation style was too sophisticated - I had missed three-quarters of the site because there was nothing that told me clearly how to move through the galleries.

Traditionally, designers used a navigation style that mirrored a traditional table of contents.  A horizontal bar across the top of a website incorporated drop down menus to move from page to page.  Today, though that style is still in use, designers are switching things up so the viewer has more organic-feeling and artistic-looking options.  At its best, good navigation design allows the user to experience the product in new and effective ways while obtaining information.  

Hence, many sites now use narrative navigation - the viewer clicks on previous and next to move left to right and back again.  Other sites may add up and down components to this style.  Still others go beyond the two-dimensional.  A site may seem to stay on one screen while a product is moved around on the screen as the viewer scrolls, permitting the user to see it from all angles.  Several sites, including Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, offer a the viewer this type of look at the human brain.  So, though technically two-dimensional, many websites now offer the user the opportunity to travel through them in a ways that allow for engagement on an almost-physical level.    

Another popular navigation technique is to design an apparently static main screen with detailed illustrations on which the user can click to be taken to other parts of the website.  Yet another type of navigation permits the user to navigate by dragging rather than scrolling, which can create a feeling that one has a birds-eye view of a treasure map.

The creator would do well to screen designs before going live.  Some new navigation techniques wow while others fall short.  As a designer, bear in mind that in the end, no matter how cool a design, if it frustrates the user or keeps them from seeing part of the website, it is not a good design.  

Because of this, a major design pitfall can be familiarity.  After weeks of working on a website, the navigation may seem second nature.  But navigation should be easily learned.  Can you find products or features easily the very first time you enter a site?  Do the buttons actually work? Is the sequence logical?  

The navigation should be consistent throughout the site, so if your homepage uses a scrolling navigation, don't switch to a drop-down menu on the Costs page.  Ideally, the navigation appears in context with the site.  That is, you don't have big orange arrows on a bucolic photo of a cow in a field.  

Lastly, the way the user navigates should be appropriate for the purpose of the site - most Old Navy shoppers want to find sales, not be wowed by a revolving image of the product.  In contrast, a role-playing site is more likely to attract a sophisticated user who is out to be impressed by imaginative navigation.  In short, the site's navigation tools should support users' goals and behaviors. 

Design practically and beautifully and never forget your target audience.