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Everything about the Web seems to be growing exponentially: the market valuations of Web-based companies such as Yahoo and Amazon.com, the connection speeds, the number of Web sites and Web surfers–and the frustration of trying to find information in the sprawling chaos of cyberspace. Not only is it difficult to find the right Web site, but it's often hard to find what you're looking for within a site.

The problem is that our understanding of how to organize Web sites to help users navigate them is not increasing exponentially. As users, we spend vast quantities of time seeking but not finding. We browse through categories and subcategories, trying to guess where they've hidden our content; we enter terms into search engines and are amazed by the number of unrelated sites that result.

The good news is that the Web is a wonderful classroom for learning from the mistakes of others. As we browse and search poorly structured Web sites, we can convert our frustration as users into understanding as producers. The more we know exactly what it is we hate about the Web, the better equipped we are to avoid these problems and to design sites that help users find what they need.

Whether you're exploring an unfamiliar city or a new Web site, there's nothing more frustrating than getting lost. In a city, you use street signs to figure out where you are and how to get where you're going; on a Web site, you rely on navigation bars, tables of contents, and search engines to find your way. By incorporating these tools into your site's navigation system, you can prevent visitors from feeling lost.

One such tool is the equivalent of a "You Are Here" symbol on a map: hyperlinks at the top or side of each page show where the user is in your site's hierarchy and how to return to a higher level. Other ways to provide contextual clues are to put your organization's name on every page and carry the main page's graphic identity throughout the site.

Other navigational tools use a printed-book metaphor. A table of contents, for example, offers a bird's-eye view of the hierarchy, helping users navigate quickly. Indexes, on the other hand, work well for users who know the name of the item they're looking for, allowing them to bypass the hierarchy altogether.

One tool that promises lots of bang for the buck is the search engine, which automatically indexes the full text of a site. However, a search engine can actually decrease visitors' ability to find what they're looking for; users often type in a keyword and receive a list of unrelated documents or the dreaded "no hits" message. One problem is that users and authors may use different words to describe the same concept (for example, car versus automobile). If you do put a search engine on your site, remember the "no dead-ends" rule: always provide links from the search-result screens to alternative ways of searching or browsing the site.

Sometimes you visit a Web site knowing exactly what you're looking for, but you have a hard time guessing which link to follow from the main page. Other times you visit a site looking for information on a more general topic or seeking help with a certain task, only to be frustrated by an organization scheme that doesn't address either topics or tasks. In both cases, the site isn't organized in a way that helps you find the information you need. How can you learn from this frustration? The answer lies in understanding the difference between exact and ambiguous organization schemes and when to use each.

Consider the telephone book's white pages, which organize entries alphabetically by last name. When you know the last name of the person you're looking for, you know exactly where to find it. Applying this "known-item" searching to the Web, you can offer an alphabetical listing of products, services, or documents on your site to help visitors who know the name of the item they're looking for. Sites that offer geographic and chronological organization schemes also lend themselves to this kind of searching.

An exact organization scheme won't help you if your interest is topical or task based–try finding a plumber in the white pages. In an ambiguous organization scheme like that of the yellow pages, information is structured by topic, task, or audience, or according to a metaphor-driven scheme.

By grouping similar items, ambiguous schemes suggest relationships you might not have considered. For instance, an ambiguous scheme can effectively suggest, "If you like this product, you might be interested in these related products and services." The problem is that no two designers structure or populate these schemes in quite the same way, so for all their value, they're often challenging to design, maintain, and use.

There are obvious pros and cons to both approaches: exact schemes work best for known-item searching, while ambiguous schemes help people who need topical information. The best strategy is to anticipate having both types of users visit your site. One of the advantages of organizing information in the digital rather than the physical world is that you're not limited to a single organization scheme; it's easy to give users multiple ways of accessing the same information.

The main pages of many corporate Web sites are simply overwhelming, often crowded with 50 or more links. The immediate effect is utter confusion–there are simply too many options from which to choose. Obviously, that's not a sensible way to welcome people to your site. Why does this happen, and how can you avoid it?

Confusing main pages are often the result of poor planning. Designers of such sites have failed to ask themselves the following critical questions at the outset:

What are the short- and long-term goals for the site?

For example, will the site offer only basic marketing materials at first but evolve to integrate product ordering and customer service as well?

Who is the primary audience and what are its members' most important needs?

Audiences for your site may include existing and prospective customers, investors, the media, business partners, or employees of your company. You can't meet all of their needs equally; you need to prioritize.

How can I define what content to include?

The larger an information system becomes, the harder it is to find anything in it. Try to develop policies that keep the focus on content of high value to your primary audience.

Without answers to these questions, most designers end up creating a site that strives to be all things to all people. A better approach is to apply the 80-20 rule: 20 percent of the content can usually meet 80 percent of users' most important needs. For example, financial-services companies find that 80 percent of visitors to their site simply need to check the status of their accounts, so it's important to provide fast access to that information. The remaining items on the site should be available if and when people decide they need it, but the focus should be on helping people quickly find the most important content.

You also need to consider breadth versus depth. An overwhelming main page is too broad; an excess of options makes it difficult for users to choose the right one, and each category may contain very little content. But a narrow, deep Web site–one that requires five or six clicks to get to your destination–is even more frustrating than a broad, shallow one. If you present options clearly, you can have as many as 32 on a main page. Studies show that users can navigate a 32-by-16 hierarchy (32 options on the main page and 16 options on each of the second-level pages) faster than an 8-by-8-by-8 hierarchy (8 options on the main page and on the second- and third-level pages). Breadth is much more acceptable when you've used alphabetical lists rather than a topical or subject-oriented hierarchy, where it's difficult to guess which category will lead to the desired item.

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web

February 1999 page: 103

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