Recently in Navigation Category

What To Do With Unused Letters?

--- Originally posted on the Adaptive Path Blog ---

I'm a big fan of indexes. There are many a content-focused website whose content could be made more findable with an A-Z index of the site content. There are lots of places on the web that talk about the merits of such indexes. Most will tell you to put a row of the alphabet at the top of the index, and have the letters be quick jumps (i.e., anchor links) to that section of the index.

But what about those letters that don't have any entries? Do you show the letter and have it link to a message saying there's no entries? Do you show the letter but have it not hyperlinked? Do you just remove the letter all together? Which option gives the better user experience?

This very question came up recently on a project I'm working on. My gut told me to show the letters but not make them links. But why? I looked high and low on the web for someplace that told me which was the better way, but I couldn't find anything. Looking at examples of indexes wasn't overly helpful for I saw sites doing it in all kinds of different ways.

So I turned to the wisdom of the crowds. I asked the question on Twitter and Plurk, as well as the Argus Associates Alumni. (Thanks to everyone who responded!) The overwhelming response was to show the links not hyperlinked, AND grayed out.

I also got multiple reasons for why this is the better approach:

  • It preserves the pattern of the alphabet and makes glancing easier.
  • Users don't wonder why some letters are missing, which can make it look broken.
  • It saves users from getting to a destination just to find out there's nothing there for them.
  • Some back-end work is saved if content is added in those areas in the future.

So there you have it. Be sure to include your unused letters at the top of your index, but gray them out and don't make them links.

Emergent Navigation

--- Originally published on the Adaptive Path Blog ---

Amanda asked me a question the other day that got me thinking. "What is the name for navigation systems that emerge from tags?"

Hrm. Good question. "Folksonomy" is the term being used for an uncontrolled vocabulary that is made by lumping together different people's tags. But I don't know that I've heard of an emergent navigation system based solely on tags.

The more I started thinking about navigation based on tags, the more the information architect in me started to worry. The problem with free-form tagging is that there is no relationship between the terms, except colocation, and frequency of use/appearance. There are limited applications (that I can think of) where a navigational structure based on colocation and frequency would be the optimal method to use (news may be one, where the "top news" items are highlighted in a persistent nav sort of treatment, but would change as the news changes). The risk of the system becoming a self-fulfilled feedback loop is large; a small number of tags bubble to the top and then stay at the top because everyone keeps clicking on them. The Technorati's top 100 list is like that in many ways.

Amanda pointed out that on Flickr and You Tube the navigation is aggregated "stuff": Most Popular, Yours, Your Contacts, etc. I would argue that the navigation still isn't driven by tags in these cases. What the sites have done is to create spaces where the content within the space is organized by tags, but those spaces are consistent, ever-present and not tag driven. "My Contacts" is not a tag. The content that appears within "My Contacts" is tag driven - it's the photo stream of people I've tagged as friends. But "My Contacts" doesn't change to "vacation" just because "vacation" is the most popular tag at the moment.

The idea that the global navigation of a site changes and flexes based upon the ebb and flow of tags used on the site screams out against the ideals of consistent, clear global navigation that I've believed for years. But after the knee-jerk reaction has passed, I wonder if there is an appropriate use for such a system. I'm just not sure.

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