Where there’s no consensus on convention
Accepted wisdom has its value – as in the positioning of a car’s accelerator and brake pedals – but on the web there is surprisingly little of it, David Bowen says.
Web managers have to keep an eye on the latest trends and decide whether they are worth following or just a flash in the pan. But while some are issues are much less glamorous, they are at least as taxing. These are ‘nitty gritty’ problems of web design where it is impossible to say there is a trend. It’s surprising how often we are asked to help out with issues that have been around for almost as long as the web, and seem no closer to resolution. Here are three.
First, and trickiest, how do you handle deep-level navigation on a big website? You might have thought this would have been sorted ages ago, but it hasn’t. There is as much variation as ever, and the most recent fashion – to abolish left navigation – has made the whole business knottier than ever.
Back when the first websites were being forged in the primeval soup of the Nineties, a standard emerged that main sections should be reached from links running across the top and second level ones from a menu down the left-hand side. It worked quite well, but its real strength was that it was so widely adopted. There is no fundamental reason why the accelerator pedal of a car is to the right of the brake pedal – but it was accepted as the norm early on, so became the default option for every car since. Likewise in web navigation: it makes sense to follow convention. Variations such as double-decker top navigation (for example, ING), and putting only local levels links to the left (BP) are enhancements – they do not break the convention.
No such consensus at lower levels, however. While a few sites (such as GlaxoSmithKline) stick to the left menu throughout, many move to other devices at the third or fourth level and are sometimes not consistent even within themselves. In-text links, links across the top of the page, right-hand links, tabs, breadcrumb links – all these and more are used and often mixed up.
It’s a tricky one – the lack of consensus is not because web designers are dim, but because there isn’t an obvious ‘right’ answer. It is, however, a bad sign when there is a plethora of ad hoc devices – it suggests deep navigation simply hasn’t been considered when the site was designed.
The least bad answer in my view is to use the left menu as far as possible: the BP approach is a way of stopping the menu getting too long, while GSK’s consistency is admirable if you can cope with tiny fonts (try About us> Governance> Other committees>Disclosure ).
Which is why I am a bit baffled by the current fashion to abandon left navigation altogether. I can see why graphic designers are keen to do this – menus are rarely pretty and take up space that might be used for sweeping brilliance. But it does make navigation – even quite near the top of the site – much more of a challenge. By definition it means convention has been abandoned, so whatever has been used instead will be less familiar to visitors.
Siemens has a mechanism that is neat once mastered – mouse over the breadcrumb to see a dropdown menu – but no one will immediately understand how to use it. Siemens now provides a navigation guide – an acknowledgement that it is not as intuitive as it should be.
Second issue. What format do you use for annual and other reports? Look through the way many companies have answered that question over the years and you will find no overall trend. They all have PDF, of course, but in some years they will also have an HTML version, some they will try an image-based version (really PDF with extra navigation round the edges), in others they try something fancier, more like an e-book. There is no shortage of offerings from the vendors, so the decision seems to be based on a combination of budget and passing fancy.
Here I can offer a suggestion. Who are your reports aimed at? If they are for professionals, stick to PDF. If you want them to have wider appeal, go for full HTML. And when you go for it, go for it. BNP Paribas has an amazing video-soaked annual report, because it clearly takes its individual shareholders seriously – it is, to use our favourite word, appropriate.
Third issue. When should a link trigger a new window, rather than replacing the current page in the same window? Again, we see companies coming and going, some taking a pragmatic view that allows for flexibility within a clear set of guidelines, others insisting on one window for everything. Then swapping round the next year.
This is an area where we have a clear view on what works best – pragmatic beats dogmatic. But this is just our view. Until there is consensus – and following on from it, convention – head scratching on basics such as these will continue for many years.
First published on 02 November, 2011