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Designing Digital Navigation Paths

Lessons from an Amazing Hike

Sandstone spires towered above us, a hundred feet or more of brilliant stripes in reds and buffs. Each new formation reached to the crisp, blue sky, its own intricate carving of water and wind, rising from a base of undulating canyons and sandy gulches filled with desert plants. Just when it seemed Utah couldn’t possibly provide a better vistage, the path turned and presented another. We paused again to take in the magic of the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park

With this natural beauty all around and the company of my nearly 18-year-old son, the scene above is not an ideal one for drifting to work thoughts, but I couldn’t ignore the lessons this amazing hike held for navigating in digital spaces. As we started off, I was immediately struck that, as much as each view was unique, they all started to blend. Once you are into the succession of Needles, it would be incredibly easy to get disoriented and lose the few ways through the walls of rock. “Man,” I thought, “we need to watch the path.” 

To be sure, one doesn’t end up dehydrated and panicky when they get lost in an information space such as a large website, but they can still end up confused and frustrated. Ensuring clear navigation is critical for an excellent audience experience and fulfillment of site goals. Navigation shouldn’t require effort; it should, in fact, blend into the background and just be a given audiences don’t think about. Canyonlands offers lessons.

Thoughtful Paths are Key

While good paths serve the critical function of ensuring you get where you want to go and back, they also do so in the optimal way. That may mean the shortest way around some landscape feature, but it might also be the most scenic way. The excitement of each unique view or each special feature is a testament to careful planning of the ways one might travel for maximum enjoyment. After all, what’s better than finding a “secret” passage through a seemingly impenetrable cliff?

Too often I find website owners unwilling to devote the time or care to provide a well-curated path to their best content. They present a bunch of stuff with a search box and some filters and let the audiences have at it. That’s fine, even good, for some purposes, but it may mean audiences miss the content equivalent of a spectacular view or exciting passageway. Create paths that go to the best stuff and promote them.

Teach About the Paths

The path we took was long and strenuous. We reveled in the steep drops to our sides and boulder-strewn climbs. For others, this route may have been a physical challenge or an anxiety-drenched death-march. Good to know at the outset.

A good path includes information about it, or metadata. What is the key content? How much is there? Why is this the best? How can audiences use it? As part of creating digital navigation paths, remember to allot time and space for teaching audiences what the paths offer and what they can expect.

Express the Brand and Support the Brand

Website navigation is inextricably part of the site’s visual design and brand. The various menus and buttons and links need to express the visual identity of the site, for example, by using the key colors and typography in effective and prominent ways. This is the minimum, though. Effective digital navigation paths truly support the brand by picking up key elements in language used, terms emphasized, styles of animation, and so on. As a prominent aspect of the site, navigation elements need to be a prominent part of the brand’s online presence.

Canyonlands nicely demonstrates how navigation paths can lead while also invoking the identity of a place: its brand, in essence. As a hiker in the forested east, I am used to blazes, such as painted spots or placards placed on trees. Sometimes, there are even spray-painted arrows on rocks. With the vegetation we have, none of this seems out of place or detracts from the scene, but in the desert southwest, it would be more obtrusive.

In Canyonlands, paths are marked by cairns, piles of rocks from the immediate area. In key places, there are outlines with local rocks and dead branches from adjacent trees. It is pretty easy to follow where the path leads, but it also blends into the experience. It doesn’t seem out of place, and, if one doesn’t look explicitly at these features—as you would when considering a turn—they look natural. 

In digital environments, you should also provide multiple kinds of pathways, such as both menus and key links in text, but ensure they all blend in and provide direction as they also support the desired experience.

Navigation Paths Can Discourage Bad Outcomes

I talked about paths ensuring great outcomes, but they can also help prevent undesirable ones. Throughout the Needles, there are washes, low areas where water rushes through during flash-floods but which are otherwise dry. I didn’t notice this at first, but the paths always cut across the washes at a perpendicular, and then ran parallel, on slightly higher land, if they followed them. “Duh,” I realized, “you want people in and out of the washes as fast as possible,” not traveling in them, even if it is more convenient. You want to minimize the chance someone is in one if a flood comes.

There likely isn’t content on your site you want people to avoid or minimize contact with, but there may be navigation paths you want people not to take. We work with an organization that reports large amounts of visualized data, for instance, and there are some pieces of data that audiences cannot validly compare, even though they look similar. There are also pairings that could imply causality when none can be assumed. We are careful to display the data and create controls—a form of navigation through this content—so that audiences don’t easily make these mistakes. We curate the path through the visuals to not only highlight the best stuff, but help them avoid incorrect interpretations.

What Great Navigation Takes

The paths in Canyonlands have no doubt been around for years—millenia, in many cases—and been refined most recently by skilled park rangers with visitors in mind. Their digital counterparts would be content experts, web writers, and design professionals. Great navigation requires thought and exploration. Creating effective digital pathways takes its own form of trailblazing.

How to start?

  • Survey your landscape. Many organizations haven’t really explored their own content recently. They have intuitions of what content is most valuable—where the stunning views are—but they are not sure how much it is really used. They may even suspect that there are important pieces, pathless gems, that audiences just don’t find. The most valuable content may be overwhelmed by loads of old, purposeless items that deserve no path and should just be removed. Do a thorough content audit that includes site analytics and content metadata.
  • Conduct audience research. Understand those who will use your paths. What do they most want to find? What markers and language will most resonate with them? What are things they most want to avoid? You need to deeply understand the “hikers” navigating your space.
  • Prioritize developing intentional pathways. This could involve creating featured content and forming an editorial calendar to govern how related items might be featured together to match key themes. It might also involve ensuring there are overarching pages focusing on key topics that pull together evergreen explanations and context with up-to-date news and commentary. 

Focus menus, buttons, and links. You can’t show everything and have it all stand out. Your overall organizing structure should be set over a long period, and have a narrow set of elements. A park can and should have only a few trailheads to give visitors a simple set of choices. Page body elements can and should change frequently, but need as much focus. Too many trails at a trailhead again creates too many options and makes for a maintenance and sustainability headache. Have fewer, better paths.

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