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Wanted: compass and sextant

March 12, 2001

L-shaped navigation is boring. You see it everywhere, including MacEdition. A bunch of links down one side, and a bunch of links in a strip at the top. Jakob Nielsen called this the tyranny of the yellow strip, and for once he was right. Churning out site after site with L-shaped navigation is enough to break a creative Web designer’s heart.

People have been trying to find ways out of it. CNET.com, the inspiration for Jakob Nielsen’s “yellow strip” comment, has recently changed its layout to a “tabbed” look, just like its new acquisition ZDNet’s new layout. Many other computer-oriented sites, like Geek.com and Computerworld.com, have similar layouts. Don’t be fooled. These are just L-shaped layouts disguised to look like something else. The sections still run along the top; latest stories go down the right-hand side. It’s the same with MacEdition, although we do the new content down the left side on story pages. Or one could do main sections across the top and subsections down the side. There are just only so many variations.

Turning pages

Books have been books for centuries. At first, things like page numbers, indexes and contents pages didn’t exist, but publishers soon adopted them because they work. Indexes aren’t sexy. If you are writing fiction, you don’t need an index. If you want your non-fiction book to be useful, however, you need one – and you need a skilled index compiler to put it together. Book designers, every bit as creative as Web site designers, don’t complain about having to have contents pages and indexes, and they don’t see book navigation as a chore or a restriction on their creativity.

The problem with the Web is that the navigation is always in your face. Every page has the whole navigation structure on it, over and over. It’s like printing the table of contents of every subsequent page of the book. So people feel it more keenly if they don’t like a Web site’s navigation than if they encounter a poorly designed book index.

The reason for the ubiquity of navigation elements is that the Web is still low-bandwidth. With a book, it’s easy to flip to the index and then go the page that mentions naked mole rats. On the Web, you could click to the “Sitemap”, find the “Naked mole rats” entry, and click on the relevant link. But nobody does; they expect the navigation to be right there, so they can click on “Naked mole rats” immediately. Clicking on the sitemap means an extra page load, and it is likely to be a long page. On a modem, this can take half a minute on a bad day. Who wants to wait that long for the table of contents, especially if you don’t even know that there is information about naked mole rats on the site in the first place? So people go to search engines, regardless of whether the search engine is any good, or whether the user is any good at structuring queries.

Thus it is so in Web design. And like book design, we need to find navigation structures that work. The L-shaped design works well for many sites. If you have a multi-layered information design, with too many sections and subsections to fit in an Apple-style two-strip navigation scheme, then an L-shaped navigation design is functional, and people know how they work.

The strip down the side performs another useful function: it reduces the width of the main part of the browser window. This is actually a good thing. People find it hard to read really long lines of text, and the line length implied by the width of most browser windows and computer screens is way too long. On the other hand, too many high-traffic sites fix their page width in with a fixed-width table. This is not the right solution to the problem of computer screens being too wide to read across comfortably; readability requires “liquid” layouts with a sensible use of whitespace that allows for different-width windows.

The Web is still young, and despite the conservatism we see in design and technology in many public sites, it will evolve. Hopefully, designs for navigation will eventually converge onto something that is both usable and attractive. That design may well be the L-shaped paradigm that bores people so much. If so, don’t break it just to be different, unless you really want your site to scream “form over function.”

— CodeBitch (codebitch@macedition.com) is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition.

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