The Encarta World English Dictionary defines navigation as ‘the science of plotting and following a course from one place to another’. This requires the individual to know where they are; where they want to be; monitor the route of their journey; and know when they have arrived at their destination. Maps are the way in which we record the geographic position of places in relation to one another and enable us to orientate our location within the physical environment. Print and screen media use metaphors of the ‘real’ world to locate our position within printed and digital information.
In the book ‘Experience Design’ Nathan Shedroff states that ‘there is usually more than one way to get anywhere’. He suggests that experiences should be designed to allow the audience to navigate information in multiple ways. When walking or driving we may take the most direct route, or the scenic route, or a route that stops by a place to eat. We have a choice of routes depending on our mood or need. Some authors or playwrights have entertained the notion of non-linear navigation through narratives or stories, for example allowing the viewer to choose the ending from a set of alternatives. The contents page or index within a book enables alternative means of navigating information. Micro-navigational systems operate at the level of the page. Footnotes are a link to further information held at the end of a chapter or the book. Folios, running heads, headings and sub-headings indicate your location within sequential information. Road maps and A-Z street guides in conjunction with street and road signage are the ways in which we commonly orientate through and between towns and cities. Within digital and online media it is accepted practice to provide alternative routes and methods of navigating through information: site maps, search facilities, menus, navigation bars, buttons, hypertext links and image links help the user plot their journey through information and maintain a sense of orientation. Too much or contradictory choice can confuse the user. The digital breadcrumb concept enables users of a site to backtrack or jump along the directory path. Horizontal navigation explores individual categories of information sequentially. Vertical navigation facilitates an overview of potential other pathways to new categories of information. Cascading menus and fish-eye views allow layers of information to be displayed so that future navigational decisions can be made.
In terms of direction the ubiquitous arrow is the most fundamental of signs. It directs us left, right, up, down, straight on or back. The arrow has been widely used as a metaphor to represent: play or start; fast forward; rewind; please turn over the page; advance to the next web page or topic; as well as in signage systems that facilitate navigation around and between buildings and cities.
Navigating an exhibition
Exhibitions are designed taking into consideration the numbers of visitors expected and how they will flow through the space. Often type, graphics, symbols and icons on the floor or walls are instrumental in guiding people through the museum experience.
Printed publications, exhibitions and hypertext links use text as a means of navigation. Information should be designed in a way that enables the user to navigate at the surface (headings) and deeper levels (text) of information.
Online navigation and hierarchy
Hierarchy is a word often used in tandem with navigation when describing website design. The ‘tree structure’ or ‘hierarchical’ site is engineered to guide the viewer in a specific direction through the content. The ‘network’ or ‘democratic’ structure offers the viewer freedom of choice as to what pages they view and in what order with all pages being linked to each other. Navigation through complex networks can become unwieldy. The purpose of navigation is to get someone from where they are to where they want to be. Requiring a user to search endlessly through links doesn’t do this. A combination of both systems means viewers are guided in part but also have the opportunity to link to pages outside the hierarchical structure.
Site maps and extended menus can give an immediate overview of the size, contents and organisation of a website. A user can scan the main sections and sub-categories and ‘jump’ immediately to a particular subject.
Search engines are often the quickest method of finding information and provide links to pages within sites. Search engines have systems of rating the relevance of the results and listing them in a hierarchical order. To understand where you are in a site on arrival clear navigational devices are required. Relying on a back button will only direct you back to the search engine.
Colour is a useful tool for navigation. Sections of a site can be colour coded to differentiate between subjects and levels of information. Active and visited links are additionally indicated by a change in colour. Different lines on a transport network can be differentiated through colour. Sections in a publication can be colour-coded.
Three states of navigation
There are three states of navigation: this is where you are; this is where you have come from; and this is where you can go. How they are represented and how understandable they are is critical to user comprehension.