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The Rightest Navigation?

Twelve years after the web started and we're still trying to figure out why users can't find anything. Why?  October 29, 2005 

Synopsis: Whether you call it 'secondary navigation' or 'downstream links,' maybe it's time to put it on the right.

A contributor to an interaction designers' group recently started a post with this:

> Hi. My name is Soandso and I like right navs (better than left navs).
> Thank you for hearing my confession.

Dear Soandso,

Fascinating that 12 (?) years have passed and the Web still has the same central dogma, categorical navigation. You are conflicted. (Deutsche accent here.) Vee feel your pain. Are you still lying down or did Dr. Spiel cure you? I hoped for the best but was concerned he might not have chased those demons.

For instance, a site like Macromedia has much too structure to think that ad hoc, content-wise linking and good, smelly links would get us all those levels down into macromedia/software/flex/solutions/isv. By then, as Neilsen tells us, we might just bail to, the mythical "other site" where they spend all their time, right? Perish the thought.

The "What" of Categorical Navigation

I believe that the conflict is this: what you casually call "right nav" is more appropriately called "drill down" or "contextual links" or perhaps someone has a great name already. It's slightly different than what we have all been calling secondary navigation. I don't believe you are proposing the demolition of a site like macromedia's top nav, after all. Part of the conflict, then, is between hierarchically superior and inferior/sibling links.

Whether one's rationale for left/top nav is the "left/top-to-bottom/right logic," "staying to the left of the vertical fold," or the "inertia of convention," is immaterial. Whichever rationale, left/top nav works great to link hierarchically superior contexts (yeh, yeh, in the Western world). And there's every chance, that over time, your choice of right-hand panels will rise to prominence for in-context (downward/sideways/advertisingwards) links. It's clear that secondary navigation on the left seems lost to many (most?) users once they fixate on page content.

And we can all trace the confluence of thought and consolidation of this new inertia to your confession. Let there be 'secondary navigation' on the right. And it was so. And it was good.

The "Why"

One tricky, little-documented phenomenon has caused all this fuss. We use drill down navigation like the table of contents in a book. But the interaction is dramatically different.

In a book, our eye scans from one H1 to the next until we get a good scent. Then we scan the H2s within, and so on. The pages of the book's frontmatter stay still until we turn them. No animation or motion in the rest of the page, certainly no server round trips. But on the web, we've gone down this path of unwittingly interweaving the function of the ToC with content browsing: as soon as we click an H1, the body of the page often changes. On some systems, maybe the body of the page doesn't change until we click an H2 or H3. The effect is the same: the body of the page changes to the chosen topic... in other words, animation or motion occurs.

And we all know what the number one technique is to draw attention, right? Motion. From this moment on, that left panel is forever lost to all but the most structured thinkers among us. And countless consultants have made money not solving the problem for 12 years. (That's why I love computers, by the way.)

If we had adopted the following rule (and I'm not proposing that we should have), the categorical navigation dilemma would be a mere fraction of itself: Never display anything (content whether hyperlinked or not) in the body of the page until the user drills all the way down in the electronic ToC to a content page. No animation would draw the eye away and the user would use the navigation to the extent of its power. Now that we've got all this distraction, putting the downstream links on the right is probably best.

The other, more subtle reason for conflict is our insistence on categorical navigation to start with. If you notice that both Amazon and Yahoo recently scaled back their categorical links very dramatically, you can see there's a larger phenomenon at play. The web (really electronics') strength is searching and instant access withing multiple "orders," such as date order. Intellectual (categorical) order will always be hampered by manual labor and ambiguity, to name just two problems.

Categorical navigation should never have been given a prominence at the expense of other orders. The balance of power is finally righting itself as search terms and engines are being improved, multiple indicies are searched simultaneously, and so on. And most importantly of all, web creators are no longer presuming that they know which "order" is the one we want to search by.


"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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