There will be websites in the future

Paths through the Website

Websites are becoming more and more complex, multimedia and versatile. Nevertheless, the navigation remains the backbone of the website. In the following we will deal with some navigation concepts and their advantages and disadvantages.

The navigation

The first lesson in human-machine interaction is likely to be that the systems are seldom used exactly as they were intended. This is especially true for software and websites. The conceptualists go to great lengths to guide the user through the website in certain ways. However, it rarely hurts to deviate from these methods - on the contrary: different ways of using the product make it easier to use the product. The user should therefore be offered as many options as possible, because the closer the product is to his usage habits, the more likely he will continue to use it.

Websites are becoming more and more complex, multimedia and versatile. Nevertheless, the navigation remains the backbone of the website. In the following we will deal with some navigation concepts and their advantages and disadvantages.

The monohierarchy - classic navigation

Most websites today are based on a simple hierarchy: top and bottom categories. Categorization is an elegant way of organizing very large amounts of information. One speaks of a strong hierarchy or monohierarchy when each object is only assigned to one level. A quote from Henrik Arndt's book on information architecture:

»Structuring information using hierarchies is very effective. Each individual section is only assigned the properties that distinguish it from the category above it. All other properties result from the position within the structure. «
(Henrik Arndt. Integrated information architecture. Springer 2006, page 135f.)

Anyone who has ever set up a categorization system is aware of the weakness of this system. Let us think of the library, where every book can almost always be assigned to several subject areas and the decision where it is ultimately classified can be based on mundane factors, including the size of the cover.

With websites, by and large, we have the same problem to a greater extent. On the one hand, too many navigation points should be avoided on the first level, on the other hand, the navigation should not have too many sub-navigation points or sub-levels. In practice it is not a problem to assign a single page to several navigation points, but that contradicts every conceptual practice.

A simple rule says that users should find what they were looking for with a maximum of three clicks, but the rule is considered out of date. It is less about minimizing the number of necessary clicks and more about clearly showing the user that he is on the right track. For one thing, users will not understand the navigation concept straight away. On the other hand - even if the webmaster so wishes - they will not open every navigation point once on suspicion to see whether what they are looking for is there. The rule of thumb applies here: with each further hierarchy level, you lose more users. If you are hopelessly lost on the third level, you are doing what most experienced Internet users would have done from the start: They call up a search engine, type in the name of the website and the search term, and you will probably find what you are looking for more quickly. The less savvy user will turn their backs on the site in the long run.

The problem with the hierarchies is that we only see what is in the level that is currently open. If we open one level, another closes. But hardly a person will take it upon himself to shimmy through all levels. According to Murphy's law, what you are looking for is always where you are not looking.

The special problem for blind people is that they move linearly through the website. Whenever you open a website that is unfamiliar to you, you have to go through all the navigation points with the screen reader to find what you are looking for. And you don't do that once, you have to repeat it every time the page is reloaded, only of course additional levels are added, so the process is longer. This is a general problem for keyboard users, because they cannot jump to the navigation points directly with the mouse cursor, but have to tap through with the keyboard, which can be very time-consuming depending on the complexity of the website.

People with cognitive disabilities often find it difficult to orientate themselves in complex structures. To make matters worse, the providers want to be as original as possible or are jargon-heavy and use language registers typical of the industry. Even users without a cognitive disability usually do not know what the copywriter is saying Brokerage or Investor Relations means. The structure of the site is often not based on the needs of the user but on the company's organizational chart or corporate wording. For completely outsiders - and that is what most users of a public offer are - both are incomprehensible and inscrutable.

Shallow versus deep navigations

Navigations are either shallow or deep. Flat navigations have many navigation points on the first level, but have few levels. Deep navigations, on the other hand, tend to have few navigation points on the first level, but have more levels. There is a lot of debate about whether the user can be expected to have 6 or 9 navigation points. In fact, however, the coherence of the navigation concept seems to be more decisive than the number of navigation points. Online shops or media, for example, often have significantly more than ten navigation points, and the success of large e-commerce providers alone shows that users can usually cope with them.

The polyhierarchy

Graphic representation of a few pages on the World Wide Web at
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The polyhierarchy or weak hierarchy is the assignment of objects to several rubrics. The best known example of websites is the categorization in weblogs. The category defines the general classification of a post, while the tags or labels allow a more precise classification of the post. With the different weighting of the words, a tag cloud allows a quick orientation about what the author is mainly writing about and also gives you the opportunity to search more specifically for articles on a certain topic without worrying about the correct search term. Should we now look for barrier freedom or accessibility, for the Internet or rather for the web? The keywording helps with the decision, because the author can assign real and supposed synonyms for his contributions. A post can be assigned to any number of categories and keywords.

In general, the principle of weak hierarchies is a good solution for websites with many posts on different topics. Unfortunately, many bloggers overdo it with the categories and tags. Keywords are assigned rather generously and unsystematically, many keywords are so general that they actually do not fit the article and do not help the user any further. The free editing system Drupal offers a more systematic approach, here entire vocabularies can be created using a built-in taxonomy system.

A polyhierarchy can also have advantages for people with disabilities. A keyword cloud allows a flatter hierarchy than navigation. If the keywords are chosen precisely, the articles on a particular topic can be found much faster than in a nested mono-hierarchy. The overly generous allocation of categories and keywords is, on the other hand, more difficult to understand than classic navigation.

  • It is much faster to create a new category than a new point in the main navigation.
  • The categories grow rather "wildly", navigations are often more coherent than categories.
  • Wordpress also allows categories to be nested, which means that the category system poses the same problems as classic navigation.

In the end, the same rules must be observed with polyhierarchies as with the structure of a navigation: the number of elements only plays a role if the entire classification system becomes confusing, incomprehensible or imprecise. Anyone who opens a new category for each post and assigns 30 keywords does not help the user.

User guidance through links

Hansel and Gretel charity stamp:
Hansel throws breadcrumbs on the path
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There and back - the breadcrumb trail

The breadcrumb trail or the so-called.Breadcrumb Trail belongs to an inconspicuous but important function on many pages. It reveals briefly and clearly where you are and what the higher level of the current page is. This fulfills an important rule of usability: The breadcrumbs reveal at any time where you are, what the next higher level is and how you get to this level. If the navigation is logically structured, the breadcrumb trail also allows an object to be assigned within a hierarchy. I'm on side X, X is a sub-item of Y, Y is a sub-item of Z, and so on. The deeper a level in the navigation, the more specific the information becomes. Logically, the information should become more general as you go up one level. A breadcrumb trail is therefore all the more important the more levels a navigation has.

The URL can also fulfill a similar function if it is readable. This is a little more obvious with a file manager: here we can use the path to identify which folders and subfolders lead to a file and get a feel for how structures are structured in this classification system. Because most websites today are based on editorial systems, the classic folder structure on the web no longer plays a major role.

Content links

Of course, the links in the content area are also part of the user guidance - a point that is often neglected. At Wikipedia, for example, the links next to the search actually play the main role. In the case of longer articles, an introductory paragraph is followed by a table of contents, which provides a quick overview of the content and structure of the article and makes it possible to jump to individual sections of the article. Within the articles, keywords are linked to which articles exist in Wikipedia. There is also the option of jumping to the source of the respective information in the form of jump anchors and then returning to the point of origin. So you can navigate through Wikipedia without using the main navigation - the real idea behind the concept "Hypertext".

Online publications and online books like to use a scroll function. Above all, online publications want to increase the click rate because certain forms of advertising are paid for based on the number of page views (so-called.Ad impressions). Or they believe in the mistaken assumption that users do not scroll on longer web pages.

In the case of books, on the other hand, it makes sense to provide the texts section by section, because the chapters offer themselves as natural sections. A good example of this are the EDP books from Galileo Verlag, which are accessible free of charge. Displaying an entire book including graphics on one page would unnecessarily increase the loading time and would bring only a few advantages.

At the end of an article, the user should always be offered an opportunity to click further: this can be a related article, a reference to sources or to interesting articles on the topic on other websites. Many users will not scroll up again to see if there is anything else exciting up above. It is always a good idea to offer a link to more general and one to more specific information in order to reach different target groups. A good example is the HTML reference selfHTML, where, for example, links to basic knowledge and more in-depth information are offered in the section on links.

Blind users like to use the function of displaying all the links on a page. This allows a very quick overview of the content of the document. If they know the website well enough and the links are properly named, blind people will be able to navigate incredibly quickly through the website. By the way, this is the reason why or is not a good anchor text for a link.

Display of the links from ›Einfach für Alle‹ through a screen reader

Sitemaps and indexes

Sitemaps and indices have so far played a subordinate role in user guidance. Sitemaps are an interesting alternative to navigation because they show all the top and bottom navigation points without having to open the individual navigation points. If the navigation points are named clearly, you can find what you are looking for much faster than if you were to use classic navigation. If you offer a graphical sitemap, you should also provide an HTML version for the blind and visually impaired.

On the sitemap you can also see, as already written in the first post, that it is less important how many main and sub-navigation points you include - it is crucial that the links are presented, grouped and named in a coherent manner.

An alternative to the sitemap would be an index or table of contents. An index is mostly based on an alphabetical sorting of important terms. Certain terms are assigned to each letter, which means that users can quickly see through the grouping. We know such indices from non-fiction books, but they can also be useful on the web: Many people know that they can find something specific on a website, but have no idea what it is called or they just missed it. Or they know that certain information is on the website, but not where. In this case, it is easier to go via sitemaps or indexes than via search engines. Indices are particularly suitable for complex websites with many different topics. However, they only make sense if they are regularly updated with updates and changes on the website.

Link better instead of more

The role of the links as elements of user guidance is hardly taken into account. Areas that are connected or related to each other are rarely connected to each other. Hypertext is an excellent medium for linking information that builds on one another in such a way that they can be found more easily. However, many websites are structured more like books. If you have landed on a special page and are looking for more general information, you can first take a look around. On official websites it is very often said which form to fill out and where to find it - mind you instead of linking it directly. If the relevant area or form has been renamed, the user has no chance of finding it. So it's not about putting any number of links on a website. Rather, the provider has to consider which information is helpful for the user. So the author has to think more so that the visitor has to think less.