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ISSUE 13 - Q1 2005

Navigation blindness
How to deal with the fact that people tend to ignore navigation tools


Most web development projects put a lot of effort into the design of navigation tools. But fact is that people tend to ignore these tools. They are fixated on getting what they came for and simply click on links or hit the back button to get there.

The navigation tools that have become standard on the web seem to be designed with the ambition to give users the option to go anywhere from everywhere. Menus with links to all the main sections are discretely placed to the left or at the top throughout the site and fold out and drop down to reveal where you are and where you can go.

In this way, every page on a website becomes a major traffic junction, where road signs point you in all directions. But people have specific destinations in mind. Above all, they need clear signage along the way to their destinations.

Users click on links or hit the back button

Two of the world's most well-respected usability experts Jakob Nielsen and Mark Hurst agree on at least one area: Users tend to ignore navigation and don't care where they are in a site structure. They are highly goal-driven and follow a very simple click-link-or-hit-back-button strategy when navigating websites.

Jakob Nielsen: "For almost seven years, my studies have shown the same user behavior: users look straight at the content and ignore the navigation areas when they scan a new page."

"…users are extremely goal-driven and look only for the one thing they have in mind…"

"…if a page does not appear relevant to the user's current goals, then the user will ruthlessly click the Back button…" (from the article Is navigation useful? published in 2000)

Mark Hurst: "In my seven years of working on the Web's user experience, a lot has changed online - but one thing that hasn't changed much is the way that most users use the average website."

"…on any given Web page, users have a particular goal in mind, and this goal drives their use. Either they click on a link that they think will take them toward the goal, or (seeing no appropriate forward clicks) they click the Back button to take another path." (from the article The Page Paradigm published in 2003)

According to our two experts, this goal-directed click-link-or-hit-back-button strategy is a fundamental phenomenon on the web. They have both experienced it as a constant usage pattern throughout their years of studying users, and it doesn't seem to be a behaviour that is likely to change. Users have apparently settled on a low-level approach to website navigation.

Users ignore navigation areas

When users come to a site, they have something specific in mind. They come for a reason. This reason might be exact, such as buying a Canon IXUS 40, or vague, such as finding a gift for a family member. But there is always a reason, and people are typically so fixated on accomplishing their goals, that they ignore everything that doesn't appear to be relevant to their current task.

There doesn't seem to be any research confirming that users systematically ignore navigation areas, but the behaviour is very similar to the phenomenon of "banner blindness." Studies by the research team Benway and Lane has shown that when users search for information on a website, they generally ignore anything that looks like a banner ad. In fact, they found that people tend to ignore any elements that are visually separated from everything else. Their findings suggest that separating navigation areas from the rest of a page may result in navigation blindness.

Two other studies support Jakob Nielsen and Mark Hurst's observations. A study by Software Usability Research Laboratory (SURL) has shown that usage of breadcrumb trails in site navigation is very low, while an eye-tracking study by the usability agency UIE has shown that users will typically only shift their attention away from the centre area of a web page after failing to find ways to proceed in the centre.

It is quite fascinating how people can focus at a task at hand and totally exclude everything else in their surroundings. A study carried out by Daniel Simons at Harvard University illustrates this phenomenon very well. A number of volunteers watched a 30-second video starring three basketball players wearing black T-shirts and three wearing white ones. The viewers were told to count the number of passes made by one of the teams. Halfway through the film, a man dressed as a gorilla jumped into the middle of the picture, beat his chest at the camera, and walked away. Afterwards the viewers where asked whether they had seen anything unusual. Astonishingly, only a very few put their hand up. The rest had been so fixated on counting the passes that they completely missed the hairy interloper.

The implications of goal-directed navigation

Both Jakob Nielsen and Mark Hurst question the value of the navigation schemes that have become standard on the web. Top menus, left menus and breadcrumbs that are placed throughout the website are at best ignored - at worst distracting. Others, such as Kristoffer Bohman, conclude that pervasive navigation should die since it's rarely needed, hard to interpret and take up valuable space.

According to Jakob Nielsen there is no need to link to all sections from each and every page on a site. We should limit pervasive navigation to five or six basic features and let people go back to the front page, if they want to start from the top. Instead, we should focus on getting users to what they want and provide useful links to related content.

In Mark Hurst's opinion designers put too much effort into content organisation and design of navigation systems. Organising a site into sections and subsections does not by itself create a good user experience. What matters is whether users can quickly and easily advance to the next step in the pursuit for their goal. He suggests a three step strategy to design for the click-link-or-hit-back-button behaviour:

  1. Identify users' goals on each page
  2. De-emphasize or remove any page elements (or areas of a site) that don't help to accomplish the goal
  3. Emphasize (or insert) those links, forms, or other elements that either take users closer to their goal, or finally accomplish it.

Mark Hurst also strikes a blow against consistency. In his opinion, it's silly to add navigation elements to a page just because it's consistent with the rest of the site. Consistency should not be the ruling principle. He encourages designers to instead focus on the users' goals and the flow they go through to get there.

Facilitating the click-link-or-hit-back-button behaviour

So how can we facilitate click-link-or-hit-back-button navigation? According to Jared Spool from UIE, trigger words are what make users able to continue towards their target. Trigger words are the words and phrases that make people click on links. They contain the essential elements that provide the motivation to proceed to the next page.

Jared Spool has formulated what he calls the Move-Forward-Until-Found Rule:

"...a web page can do only one of two things: either it contains the content the user wants or it contains the links to get them to the content they want. If a page doesn't follow this rule, then the users stop clicking..." (from the article The Right Trigger Words)

In a study where the participants were first interviewed about what they hoped to find on a number of large websites, UIE found that when the participants were successful in finding their target content, the words that they used in the interview appeared 72% of the time on the site's front page. When they were unsuccessful, their words appeared only 6% of the time. The study suggests that if the right trigger words are present on the front page, users are far more likely to find what they are looking for.

Jared Spool uses a redesign of the website for the company Analog Devices as an example of a site which has tested well with users because of its focus on trigger words. The site was redesigned from a typical high tech industrial website with a few product category links on the front page to a site with a front page containing a huge number of trigger words. Instead of having to guess what major category a particular product falls under, the customers can quickly pick the closest product from a list and go directly to the content they desire.


The front page of Analog Devices' website after the redesign.

According to Jared Spool links have to give off enough "scent" to help users move forward towards their goal. And that scent comes from the trigger words. When new content is added to a site, it's the designers' most important task to ensure that the links to that content contain the right trigger words.

Facilitating explorative navigation

If people are so highly goal-driven and ignore everything that doesn't relate to their current task, how can we possibly let them know about additional benefits that might be of interest to them? In a study UIE have found that users can be seduced away form their original quest only after they have accomplished some or their entire goal. They call this "the seducible moment."

"The seducible moment can happen only when users have completed at least part of their original quest. It's difficult to lure users away until they've reached this (self-defined) point; before that, they will simply ignore distractions." (from the article The Right Trigger Words)

As Jakob Nielsen and Mark Hurst, UIE have experienced that users come to a site on a mission and will not stray off the path of their original quest before this mission is fulfilled. But once they have found the information they are most interested in, they seem more willing to shift their attention.

The seducible moment is the point at which designers are most likely to be able to encourage users to explore additional content. To lure users of their track, designers must identify these seducible moments, discover what information would interest users at this point, and find the optimal placement of the lure.

Since users are not willing to be seduced before they have accomplished what they came for, persuasive navigation should be placed at locations where we can expect that users have come to the end of their current mission. A good placement is often towards the end of a page. If users have come this far, they have shown such an interest in the content that it's likely they have fulfilled their mission and will allow their attention to be diverted.

Amazon.com has always been a good example of how to encourage costumers to explore additional offers. After you have had the chance to evaluate a book, the site invites you to check out other titles by the author, books on the same subject, books that other customers have bought, and recommendations based on your previous actions on the site.

In conclusion

It seems to be an inescapable fact that users are highly goal-driven and tend to ignore navigation tools. Instead, they focus on the centre area, and hit the back button if they can't find anything that will take them further.

The findings suggest that navigation should be a prominent part of a website. Instead of being discrete appendices separated from the rest of the site, navigation should be integrated into the site and make sure that users stay in the flow.

Some might say that it's not as bad as it seems. People will eventually find the one link that takes them further after having examined a web page more thoroughly. But why should we place this burden on people if we can design navigation schemes based on how people actually navigate.

Text: Henrik Olsen

 
"Instead of being discrete appendices separated from the rest of the site, navigation should be integrated into the site and make sure that users stay in the flow."

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