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Link Styles, Location Cues, and Usability

Page elements that foster a sense of location

     
7:14 am on Nov 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

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Once we've got a visitor, it's a darned shame if our site confuses and loses them.

The basic elements of usability can seem like no-brainers - but for that reason, we can easily breeze right past one of them in our design.

How a page renders links (menu or inline) is an essential part of usability. And yet, I know that I don't always take some of these basic steps - "rules" I followed religiously on my earlier site.

So I'm posting three basic "rules" that I try to follow. I'm hoping for expansion on these ideas, the addition of other rules, and even disagreement.

A. Links should look different than other content
For a link to be usable, it needs to be easily visible - and I don't just mean a cursor change on mouseover. I see a lot of "high design" pages where the links look nearly like the surrounding content.

I don't take the extremist position that all links "MUST" always be underlined and rendered in #0000ff blue. But the farther we move from that earliest web convention, the more effort we should take to ensure that visitors can still tell when a link is a link.

B. No link in a menu should simply reload the page itself
Here's an easy one to fall away from. The culprit may be using an include file for the menus, or templates for page construction, or many other methods of mass producing pages. Nevertheless, a link that leads back to the same page it occurs on definitely breaks the web's metaphor.

If a user thinks they are on a given page, but they see that very page as an available link, then that undermines their sense of location - not something we should do. Even worse, if they click on such a link and reload the same page, they may become irritated, confused, or decide that the site is poorly constructed. The result may be that the visitor just leaves.

This is one of the principal problems with framesets. A link in the navigation frame is always active, even when it reloads the currently displayed page.

C. Location cues should always exist, and usually in several different forms
For example:

  1. A page's place in the section's standard menu should continue to be occupied by the same text, but just not as an active link.
  2. Some kind of change (color, all caps, etc.) to that menu text makes a simple and appreciated location cue.
  3. A third location cue can be that that the link text from the menu also appears prominently (and word for word) at the top of that target page.
  4. A fourth location cue might be an icon or some other design element that changes from section to section. This is useful as a location reinforcement, but after a visitor explores our site for a while. The new visitor hasn't learned our "system" yet, and needs to see other more unversally expected cues to have a sense of location.

Recently I've run into many sites that break one or more of these three simple rules. When too many get broken at once, I become like a stray dog and I usually go elsewhere as quickly as I can. So it's embarrassing to me to discover that one of my site designs isn't following through on basic usability. That usually happens because I tried to get cute.

8:40 am on Nov 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

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Wonderful overview tedster. I'm sure it will be of value to many.

Thank you! :)

8:41 am on Nov 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

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*scuffing toe on ground and looking sheepish* aawww.. come on... the SSI thing isn't that bad.. is it?

durnit.. i just used that for the first time this weekend... but of course you're right.

:) excellent post tedster

11:44 am on Nov 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

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the SSI thing isn't that bad.. is it?

No, not really, I guess. And not if that's the only break from best practices. But it is still one step back, and definitely less than the ideal. It's probably more disconcerting to a newer user, or a once-in-a-while user.

But it's always good to be tuned into potential problems - ESPECIALLY if other areas are weak. For instance, if headlines don't duplicate the link text in the menu, then that compounds the error.

I have been on some major sites just this year with usability problems in this area. I was at the bottom of a longish page where I clicked on a link. It reloaded the same page I was on. I didn't even realize it at first, because the link text and the page headline were different. And then I was ticked off.

I will grant you that SSI is very handy for main menus. That's probably why so many sites violate this "rule" - especially as they get large.

However, I am a firm believer in measuring, rather than just holding an opinion. And that's part of the reason for my post. I recently changed a smallish site (100 pages or so) to line up with this principle.

And, son of a gun, the stickiness stats went up immediately.

3:07 pm on Nov 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

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If you have a scripting language in place, you can do the SSI menus with location cues built in. Just write your menu code to differentiate based on the URL requested. The mechanics of so doing may differ between scripting languages, but I'm pretty sure they all allow it.

I can't say I've actually done that on all my pages that use SSI navigation, but I do have one that does, so I know it's possible. You can have the best of both worlds on that particular issue.

3:13 pm on Nov 11, 2002 (gmt 0)

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Should have said this in the last message, but thanks for your list, tedster. It looks good, and I'll most likely be referring back to it this evening as I put together a new site about whose usability I am even more concerned than usual.
10:39 am on Nov 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

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I can't believe no one brought up breadcrumb trails.

I never use the things in my designs - I think they are really geeky and scary to the uninitiated. But Jakob loves 'em and so do a lot of other people. Plus I occasionally find the ones on this site helpful in reducing clicks.

Are there any breadcrumb fans in the house? Do they help as location cues?

2:09 pm on Nov 12, 2002 (gmt 0)

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>breadcrumbs

While you & I see that Tools>Internet Options>Security is an excellent way to communicate a path and location, anecdotal evidence from my own directory leads me to believe JohnQ doesn't recognize>follow it intuitively once they leave Yahoo --at least not yet.

1:14 am on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

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Tedster, I'm not sure I'm 100% with you on B.

If a link disappears on me from the menu, I get confused and immediately it makes me wonder what other links disappear and whether there are hidden pages that I'm not able to access.

What we do is we tend to follow A and C strictly, and this compensates for B.

However, if you have stats and have experience with this, perhaps I will try it on a few sites and see.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful list.

2:34 am on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

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Nice one Tedster.

I think breadcrumbs are great but I have a few issues:

1. You can have dynamic breadcrumbs that identify where the user has been, but these just show a unique path, and most people use the back button - do they really help users?

2. You can have fixed breadcrumbs that show the user where the page sits in the site, and I think these are great for showing users where the page is positioned within your main nav, org structure etc, but when people link to pages from other areas I think this is confusing. (e.g. if I was is a company's 'hot deals' section, and clicked on a product, and then was taken to a page that had home > products > electrical > DVD I wonder where the "hot deals" went.) Shouldn't a good menu do this job?

Other location cues for more savvy web users include well written page titles, and URL's that make sense (also so people can url chop).

2:42 am on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

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If a link disappears on me from the menu

He's suggesting that the navigation point still be present, but not as an active hot link.

Yahoo's use of breadcrumbs is a good example of this.

All of the pages in their displayed hierarchy are active links except for the page that you are on.

11:35 am on Nov 13, 2002 (gmt 0)

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All fair points Tedster...
A. Links should look different than other content
agreed

B. No link in a menu should simply reload the page itself
hmm..not sure about that one, along with the visual location cue on the link it should be self explanatory that it's the same page you're on....
but then I do use SSI for my menus, so perhaps it's just laziness to script ;)

C. Location cues should always exist, and usually in several different forms
agreed, I usually use 3 or more....

I like breadcrumb trails as a location cue (directory paths only though) and use them along with corresponding page titles (word for word) top (and bottom sometimes) of page, to say they are "geeky and scary to the uninitiated" is a bit judgmental....

I use the ones on this site all the time (only wish they had them at bottom of page too, so I can return to index without returning to top of page;))...and if fact on most sites that have them...I very rarely use my browser back button...although I'm aware that a large percentage of people do...

I think they are no more scary than any other location cue you might use. For example I know a user who thinks they have to go back to the home page in order to navigate sites even though the left/right menu shows their location at any given time..

Think about it this way...As a user gets more familiar with your site, they may start to experiment with the breadcrumbs "to see where that link leads" (that's how I learnt to use them :)) and they will then "get" the concept eventually.

Therefore a breadcrumb trail is no different to any other location cue you may use... it's like that user I know that will eventually realise that a link becomes a different colour depending what page he/she's on so perhaps they'll start using that side menu thingy......

We cannot teach people internet browsing techniques, they find that out for themselves like we did ;)

Good Discussion points though
Keep Up The Good Work

Suzy
:)

[edit] sp! [/edit]