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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Navigating Web Caves ... How To

Did you hear the one about the two Saudis and an American who go into a cave with 25 Europeans and a Dutch guide holding a lantern? Of course you haven’t because it really happened, and I’m going to tell you about it.

The Saudis are my clients, and I’m the American consultant. We’re in Maastricht, Netherlands for a round of video interviews with their European leadership. The interviews will turn into content for the learning portal I’m helping the company build.

It’s the weekend, and I decide an outing at a popular tourist attraction might be fun for all. The St Pietersberg Caves there are famous. Approximately 2,000 passages comprising 125 miles, the caves were formed from centuries of mining marl, which was used primarily in constructing area buildings. Napoleon visited the caves, Rembrandt’s paintings and downed American pilots were hidden there from the Nazis … many stories. So, why not go there?

The three of us board a boat for the 30-minute trip down river, then a 20-minute climb uphill, followed by a 10-minute walk down inside the mountain. Before we descend, I discover that the cave tour is conducted only in Dutch. I approach the tour guide hoping that he excelled in English in school. He says curtly that, if I stay close to him and if he has time, he will translate for me from Dutch to English the information he just told the group. I will then convey his comments to my Arab-speaking clients, whose English, fortunately, is quite good.

When we arrive in the cave’s first large chamber, whose rock walls are adorned with paintings and stories, the crowd gathers around the guide. I position myself on a nearby ledge up against the cave wall to watch his body language and not block the view of children. The first words out of the guide’s mouth are directed to me in English: “Don’t touch the walls of the cave.” My companions slip into the crowd to avoid being associated with the culprit.

Think about that experience. You are trusting someone you never met to lead you where you have never been, explaining in a language you don’t know about unfamiliar writings and designs on walls in chamber after chamber. And what if your guide was to turn off his lantern and you were standing there in 50° blackness without a flashlight? How would you make your way back out?

Now, think about the website, intranet, or portal you’re building. You’re leading people who don’t know you, down paths they have never been, to rooms of information where you use terminology that is yours not theirs. Fortunately for them but not for you, if they get lost and panic, they simply click out.

Of course, good web designers and user experience experts know the standard tricks for helping people navigate sites. They can logically explain to you how those techniques will work. However, that doesn’t excuse you, the site originator and manager, from the process. Quite the opposite. Your role is to be the human in that process, the user.

Long before getting user testing underway – you will be doing user testing, right? -- you have to be the user. When your consultants and colleagues are saying, “they’ll (users) figure it out,” or “after they read all the information …” you should be thinking, “I don’t want to have to figure it out,” and “I probably would skim and grab information, not read it all.”

So, step aside from the others, realize that you’re on the tour alone, walk around the passages and chambers of your prototype site, and monitor your thoughts and feelings. Let me put you in the right frame of mind. Think cave.

3 Directions

1 Moving vertically
The homepage is the orientation center. You will spend only 30, maybe 60 seconds here. No time for hype. You’re busy, and you came to this page for a purpose: to get an annotated map. If the map is too difficult to decipher, you simply will find your own route using the search function. You have a search function on the site, right?

As you, the visitor, make your way down through a passage from the homepage to the information chambers, you should drop some breadcrumbs that show you how to get back. And you know what breadcrumbs are on a site: they’re the string of categories found consistently near the top of the screen that serve the same purpose as a “you are here” map. The highlighted “crumb” indicates where you are in relation to each step along the path. Click left on a crumb and you are back at a higher level. Keep the crumbs simple: they’re crumbs, not bread slices.

2 Moving laterally
Each chamber in the St Pietersberg Caves has distinct content. Some contain wall paintings, some plaques, and one has baking ovens that once fed people in hiding. No matter how different the content of the rooms, common to all is rock -- rock walls, rock floors, rock ceilings. Wherever tourists are, rock tells them they’re in a cave.

Diversity is good. Yet, taken to extremes on websites by organizational family members who want to establish their own identities -- often meaning separateness -- visitors who wander to those places can get confused and lost. Unless politically impossible, make sure all parts of your site share at least the rock ... that is, share common design elements and structure -- colors, type fonts, heading styles, whatever -- that visually tell users they are in the same cave, just different chambers.

Sometimes a departmental intranet was up and running before you decided to launch the central site. For example, the Supply Chain group has its own wiki-type site, which includes a learning management system and training courses. However, you have planned for a learning section on the main site for centalizing all training. Supply Chain wants its staff to link to your learning options but is unwilling to give up what took so long to build.

You can think territorially about this and wage a battle, or you can think like an employee who, frankly, doesn't care who owns what. Easy access and minimal clicks are all that matter. Consequently, build a transitional page that visually signals users coming from or to the main site that they are about to move into a different zone.

3 Moving out
Bailing out of a site is simple. Once again, think like a user. What would make you do a u-turn and linger just a bit longer, then return soon and often? Of course, the content must be engaging and applicable. Assuming that's true, you the user would want to do something with that content such as:
  • rate the value of what you read or heard;
  • bookmark a page using your preferred service: Delicious, StumbleUpon, etc.;
  • capture and store information from various pages (e.g., Google Notebook);
  • share information with others by clicking on email, print, ShareThis, and various social networking options; and
  • receive email or SMS cellphone alerts on items of interest.
5 Moving Tips
  1. Flash motion can add personality to pages, but sometimes that personality is narcissistic. A revolving header screams, “look at me because I’m more important than what you’re looking at."

  2. Moving images -- video, animation, etc. -- add entertainment and a human touch to content. Use those formats increasingly but let the site visitor choose to turn them on.

  3. The canned message on the homepage from your CEO probably won't move visitors. It's rarely read and never read on the second visit. Save the real estate.

  4. Keep the user stationary by integrating all media into pages rather than separate windows.

  5. Construct the homepage as a map, but realize that many, if not most visitors will move from another site directly to a page of specific interest on your site.

Richard Skaare 01.11.09
Credit: Photo by Luke Redmond


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