Navigation Sets the Stage

When you define a navigation system for a website or app, you establish the boundaries of a small world; you set the stage where interactions will happen and enable movement within a constrained space of possibilities. The range should be obvious to the people who will use the space; they should be clear on what the space is and what they can do here.

Let’s say you establish a primary navigation bar that includes the following choices:

Products | Services | Solutions

What’s the difference between products and services, or services and solutions? What about products and solutions? The answers will obviously depend on the context within which the organization operates; a power utility operates in a different context than a company that sells refurbished smartphones.

Most people probably don’t have a clear distinction between these things in their mind. When faced with these choices, they need to click around a bit to get a sense for the sort of things that are in each section. (“Oh, that’s what they mean by ‘solutions’ here.”) As the person explores the possibility space, he or she gains a clearer understanding of what each area includes and excludes. These terms (“products”, “services”, “solutions”) don’t call to mind any particular context on their own; you’ve probably seen them used to describe many different types of organizations’ offerings.

Contrast this with a navigation bar that includes these choices:

Balls | Bats | Mitts

Taken individually, none of these choices give you a definitive understanding of what the context is. (There are many types of balls in the world used in a variety of different contexts; the word ‘balls’ could refer to any one of them.) However, taken as a group, these choices suggest you’re dealing with a particular context: that of baseball. They also bring to mind clear images; it’s easier for you to visualize “bats” than “products.” As a concept, “products” sits too far up the ladder of abstraction.

As designers of information environments, we’re called to define the right level of abstraction for the terms that appear in navigation systems. More concrete terms will bring up clearer images but will be less inclusive of other elements, leading to a proliferation of options (and thus risking a paradox of choice situation.) However, using more abstract terms will require more exploration from users, particularly if they are unfamiliar with the context the organization operates within.

When we pick labels for navigation structures, we’re creating distinctions — drawing boundaries — that will affect how people understand the possibilities before them. We must do so conscientiously.