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,
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
> Thank you for hearing my confession.
that 12 (?) years have passed and the Web still has the same
central dogma, categorical navigation.
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
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 laszlosystems.com,
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,
hierarchically superior and inferior/sibling links.
Whether one's rationale for left/top nav is the "left/top-to-bottom/right
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.
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
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
The pages of the book's frontmatter stay still until
we turn them. No animation or motion in the rest of the
no server round trips. But on the web, we've gone down
this path of unwittingly interweaving the function of
with content browsing: as soon as we click an H1, the
body of the page often changes. On some systems, maybe the
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
in other words, animation or motion occurs.
And we all
know what the number one technique is to draw attention,
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
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
to a content page. No animation would draw the eye
the user would use the navigation to the extent of
its power. Now that we've got all this distraction, putting
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.
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,
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.