Knowing where you are ….

I took the mountain bike out the other day, and against my better judgement I decided to hit a few new trails and got completely lost.  Not the best decision I have ever made as it was approaching dark, I forgot my lights, and I had no GPS.

I decided to keep going along the trail and eventually found a map board.  Luckily it had a “You are here” mark so I could figure out where I needed to go.

This experience reminded me of something in the Steve Krug book “Don’t make me think”. The book talks about web usability and what frustrates users or rather “what makes them think”.
One of the first things Steve mentions is always knowing where you are. In everyday life there are signs to tell us exactly where we are, so we can determine where we want to go next.

These signs become even more important when we are using the internet, we usually design websites with the users taking the normal trail, i.e. arriving first at the homepage.

So what happens when a user decides to go off on a trail of their own. This is done very easily on the internet by carrying out a search, clicking on one of the search results links, and getting brought to any page on a site. This will leave users lost for a split second, just like I was on the bike, until I found the map board.

In this scenario there’s no physical map board with a “You are here” mark to help users, but Steve has an acid test for just this scenario.  If you pick a random page from your site and answer the following questions without hesitation, then you have a certain degree of confidence that users will know where they currently are and can easily decide where they want to go.

What site is this? – The user will first look to see what site the search result has brought them to, so they look for the site id.

What page am I on? – The page name should be clearly visible and is a good aid for the user to understand what information they are currently looking at.

Where am I in the scheme of things? – This is the “You are here” indicators.  Basically it is about users being able to look at the navigation of a site, and know exactly where they are in relation to the overall site.

What are my options at this level? – This is your local navigation, and will let users know what else is available on this section of the site. They might not be at the exact item they are looking for, but are in the general vacinity.

What are the major sections on this site ? – Users will look to find the sections of the site so they can determine where to go next.  Something they will use if they are in the completely wrong vicinity.

How can I search? – Users may have gotten the wrong search term to start with, so instead of going back to the search engine they will chose to search within the site using a different search criteria.

Let’s take a look at the amazon site, as it’s a pretty good example for being able to answer all the above questions without hesitating. I used a search engine and carried out a generic search on kitchen.

Amazon Example

It’s easy for me to see that i’m on the amazon site with the logo.  I can also tell you that I’m looking at the bakeware section of the site by the “>” which is the “You are here” indicator within the Kitchen and Dining section which is the page name.  I also know that Cake stands are available amongst other things within the local navigation and “Garden and Outdoors” is available via the section navigation.  But if I was looking for PC’s I would use the search option as it was not relevant to my initial search which landed me on this page.

So the next time you are designing a site remember that users can approach the site from a different trail and may need a little more help, just like I needed a little helping hand to find my way the other day.

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