Creating Context With Language

Many UX designers think the purpose of navigation systems and heading labels is so users can move around and find what they’re looking for. While it’s true that making things findable is a primary function of navigation and labeling systems, they also have another critical purpose: helping set the right context for the user’s interactions in the environment. Choosing the right words can make it possible for people to know where they are, and this changes the meaning of the words.

As a mental exercise, try examining navigation structures in absence of company or app names. How much do the navigation systems tell you about what the place is? How does this change what you understand them to mean?

Here’s an example:

Website navigation system

I’ve covered the logos on this website so you can’t tell which company it is. (Although if you live in the U.S. you may be able to guess from the colors.) Look at the words on the navigation bars. You don’t need to know anything else about this environment to guess you’re in a bank. One of the labels even says it outright: Banking. This changes the meaning of the other words there. For example, the label Learning could point to many things; knowing you’re in a bank helps you constrain the possible meanings of “learning” to something like “educational material for becoming more financially savvy.”

The words you use in the navigation systems and headings of websites and app have a special role in those environments: They not only help you find what you’re looking for; they also help you understand what you’re looking at. The two functions are synergistic and must be carefully considered when choosing labels.