Design navigation for clarity and fidelity

Navigation is not a murder mystery. A great link tells you what it is, and just as importantly, tells you what it is not. There is nothing worse than a vague, meaningless link. Well, there is. It’s a link that promises much more than it can deliver. I call that sort of link a dirty magnet. The following are a list of terrible link names:
• Resources
• Tools
• Knowledge Base
• Tutorials
• Documents
• Data sheets
• Manuals
• Videos
• Frequently Asked Questions
• Quick Links
• Useful Links
• Do It Online
• Solutions

It would be generous to say that they are unclear. Formats are terrible forms of navigation. What is a document? What is not a document? How is a document different from a manual? What is a tutorial? Is a tutorial a document? Is a data sheet a document? And are all these things resources? Most of the aforementioned are print concepts, totally unsuited to a quality digital environment. Instead of data sheets, why can’t we say technical specifications? Instead of having documents, have installation, configuration, pricing, etc.

One of the laziest and least useful forms of navigation that grows like a weed on the Web is “Frequently Asked Questions.” If someone comes to your website with a question, how do they know it’s frequently asked or not? FAQs are one of the worst examples of organization-centric thinking. The organization knows it’s a frequently asked question. The customer does not.

Let’s say customers are constantly asking about prices. What should you do? Create a link in your navigation called “Pricing”, of course. FAQs are the ultimate in design laziness. Instead of actually organizing for the customer, let’s just dump a bunch of stuff into an FAQ. (Most of the stuff you find in FAQs are not even frequently asked.)

Tools is a terrible form of navigation. It is an awful approach to separate tools and content. People want to book a flight, not find a tool. And videos? Oh, I haven’t seen a video in days. Any video will do. And Solutions? What does that mean? Sure, it’s marketing nirvana, but we have seen countless customers get confused and annoyed when they clicked on it. Delivering solutions may be good strategy but as a form of navigation it is worse than useless. In fact, it is dangerous because it is a classic example of a dirty magnet—it promises so much more than it delivers.

The best and clearest navigation link is a task. “Costs” is what it is. “Costs” is not “Schedule”. The clearest links often avoid verbs such as “find” or “get”. Stripping away the verbs allows you to start with a more unique word. Don’t use “Get Pricing”. Use “Pricing”. Unless the verb is absolutely essential, strip it away. Focus on the essence of the task.

If most links were married they’d be getting divorced, because they never keep their promises. A link is a promise. Navigation is a promise. Don’t say “Book Now!” when it’s actually five steps to book. That’s like saying on a road sign “New York Now!” only to then explain that New York is 80 miles away. It really annoys people. Good navigation gives people a sense of what’s involved in the journey: how many steps, how long it will take, what exactly they will get. A link is a promise. Keep your promises.

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