Why we should separate the content from the navigation

A contents page in a printed book allows us to skip to labelled parts of the book. An index section allows us to visit specific references directly. Neither are very efficient though. eBooks have enabled inline linking, which is a massive step forward, but like any database, this technology “hides” data, and doesn’t take advantage of a particular skill which we’ve developed: scanning through lists and selecting what we want.

There is a way, however, in which the technology we have at our disposal can take advantage of the random-access nature of the web and the reader’s skill in browsing lists. It’s by having lots of indexes, and the most obvious manifestation of all this is “tagging” on websites. If every page is given a series of relevant “tags” (keywords which relate to the page), it’s simple to generate an index page for each keyword. Many websites (especially blogs) do this excellently.

What’s this got to do with us?

So far, so good. But what’s this got to do with the average industrial or scientific company’s website? Well, I think that most miss a trick, by setting up indexes and menus as a strictly linear guide to the site. In other words, each page just gets one link from the website’s navigation system.

Instead, why not separate the content from the navigation? Forget, for a moment, about the multiple-pyramid structure which most sites use. Just create every page, whether it’s a product description, a technical article or a news story, as just that: a page on its own.

Now let’s start adding navigation systems which reference those pages in multiple ways. What types of widgets does the company make? In that list, there’ll be a link to the page about blue widgets. How do I do whatever it is that blue widgets do? Again, that index will include a link to the page about blue widgets. And so on.

Menus to match the user’s requirement

It used to be fashionable to have a “press office” section on corporate websites. This nice little compartment housed all the company’s press releases. Few people have this nowadays (why suggest to customers that there’s an area not for them?). But it’s quite sensible to have an index of “latest news” for any visiting journalists or investors. There’s no reason why the items listed shouldn’t also be listed under other headings too. Many of the pages there might also be listed under the “case studies” index. Or the “everything about our blue widgets” index. Or the “added to the site this week” index.

Websites can be made much easier for users if we just think about what the visitor might want, and how we can cater for it best. The big problem is not being able to step back from the compartmentalised way of thinking which many of us grew up with.

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