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Some Initial Thoughts

Tue Feb 17 00:00:00 2009

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A few thoughts on the manner in which people navigate sources of information

The brief

North-West England Perl Mongers Homepage
Enlightened Perl Organisation

How do people find the information or resource they require when they look?

How do you guide people to new material or relevant information to their enquiry?

How fast can they find what they need and how important is it that they find it?

I have a few questions that I have been posing to myself as I start a re-think of navigation for a new site, and while I consider the navigation through some of my existing projects. The above questions work as a brief precis of those thoughts (I have shortened the list to make it accessible to think about here), and I will probably come no way towards answering them :). This article -or group of articles- is simply to serve as an aide to memory and a start point for my journey.

An anecdote[1]
on three types of information navigation

I regularly play a roleplaying game with a few friends of mine. The game has a series of rules, rule books and guides that are often consulted to check on variations of conditions (this is especially true in challenges and combat but not important to this argument). Three of us have a different approach to how we navigate to a given piece of information in the books and it illustrates the most common approaches to information navigation.

Friend One: The Seeker
The first person in our navigation trio when looking for information uses the book as much as the two others. He is by nature a person who tries to remember as much of the information as possible yet will struggle with where he read the details, often leading to confusion as he pieces the data from more than one source. On looking for data he will firstly jump to the rough section of the book where he thinks the information is. If he cannot find an exact match he will read around to see how he gathered that information. If neither of these approaches work he will resort to using the contents page to see if there is an unremembered section or category before finally retreating to the index.

In regards to website navigation this approach signifies those people who flick from page to page scanning information and fast seeking data. In order to better serve them we might make the navigation links refer accurately to the page they represent, or we might repeat information in several locations in order to collate as much as possible, those repeats would have links to the parent article or page in much the same manner as a wiki works.

Friend Two: The Knowledge
Number two in this group is the person who knows all, a positive oracle of information. He has studied the book several times in order to fully immerse himself in what has been written. When asked for information he will quickly recount his knowledge and then will open the book and move to the section from memory and re-scan the information to verify his answer. His abilities are in the retrieval of personally stored information, its failure is when he has mis-recalled or when information is updated as he may mix the information. He rarely uses a guess or a compaction of more than one source, he will instead recount both.

For website navigation this is the person who has read your website many times and can often navigate straight to the information they require. The essence here is on familiarity of layout and content delivery and to ensure the information is as accurate as possible and easy to recall. This person is probably going to be aided by good RSS feeds that inform of data updates or changes as then he can re-read the relevant section without trawling through seeing what else has been altered and therefore speeding the user experience.

Friend Three: The Archivist
Number three's approach is to always use the index. He will sometimes recall the general location, compact information from more than one source or recall the whole section, but on a request for information he will always use an index. The value to him from this is that a properly constructed index will direct the reader to the data accurately without any confusion.

In regards to website this person may best be served by a search engine, except that they usually return too much text. One could use a site map, or a table of contents but this has to be accurate enough and comprehensive enough for them to drill down the information fast enough. This type of user is normally served with the 'best possible' option. Perhaps this is the accurate site map, or maybe an index generated from context, the use of tags and a tag cloud can suit this user very well.[2]

It should be noted that these three people often each have a copy of the same book and go scrabbling for the information. Partly it is a race (I guess), partly it is to do with getting everyone the information as quickly as possible so as not to interrupt the flow of the game. Strangely, the fastest to the information is often number three and number two almost simultaneously as number ones reliance on compacted data from multiple sources often has him scanning the wrong section. Even more interesting to note is that when number two is fed data from number three on the specific location, he is very fast as he has already navigated to the correct section and so is in the right area to retrieve the information.

This dual approach strikes an interesting question as to how we drill down a large amount of data into easy to display, manage, and retrieve chunks. How can we combine our methods of data searching by navigation utilising good contextual links, tags and RSS feeds into a combined system as opposed to three forms of navigation. That's perhaps a question for next time...


[1] The idea of telling anecdotes seems to have become a fascination of mine and I hope it doesn't cause too much distraction.

[2] I have an issue with tag clouds as they are often displayed visually as a cloud or block of information, they are often filled with colours and larger displayed fonts to show important links, which are as negative an effect as they are positive. I think it looks clumsy and doesn't accurately reflect how we navigate information. I personally would like a tag cloud to be generated into an alphabetical index with the use of emphasis to show details like popularity, frequency of appearance etcetera.


Mark Keating is: Managing Director of Shadowcat Systems Limited
Director and Secretary of Enlightened Perl Organisation
Co-Founder/Co-Leader of North-West England Perl Mongers
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