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Understanding non hierarchical navigation from a web 2.0 point of view

By: Sabyasachi Mitter at Interface Business Solutions

Submitted on Fri, Aug 17th, 2007 12:00 am

Navigation has always been considered the key to the success of any web site. It is common knowledge that visitors to any web site have very short attention spans. Thy either find the information that they are looking for (or at least know how to reach there) within a few seconds or they drift back into cyberspace to the next destination. For long web designers and internet strategy experts have tried to design site architectures and user friendly navigation menus to address this need.

We have seen the use of a site map that potentially helps visitors find the information quickly. However too often the site map link itself is buried deep below in some obscure corner. Worse still the site map itself is so voluminous that it is an equally daunting task of finding ones way through it. Menus have often been the panacea of all evil, and till the web 2.0 revolution came knocking by, that was all that was in the hands of us designers to take our visitors quickly to what they were looking for. Thus the birth of numerous menu systems - the drop down menus which grew into the cascading drop down menus or the sliding panel menus that we came to see in the side bars of many web sites. From a single menu (often made quite accessible by css) the visitor could now reach almost any part of the web site. Breadcrumbs became another popular means of ensuring our valued visitors never lost their way and could quickly trace their path back to where they started from.

For some time we believed we had this all sorted out. And then came some (at the time) revolutionary web sites that changed it all. Flickr for example. some strange tags were thrown in on the pages while you would look around for some images. Clicking on them would take you to a whole new page that strangely could not be navigated from any visible menu system. Soon as one got around playing with it one realized this was an altogether new and soon addictive form of navigation. At Interface we call this non-hierarchical navigation or as our creative director likes to refer to it - the user created navigation.

What are we talking about here? well a completely new way to allow users to navigate our web site for one. The premise of non-hierarchical navigation is that menu trees are necessarily made by us (the corporate thinker). It follows a given hierarchy that we feel defines the way our information is structured. For example the category section logically leads to products which should lead to product details and so on. It works well up to a point. Our visitors however have their own way of seeking a path through our site by following what they consider the natural navigation path. If we could somehow track the paths taken by users through our site and be able to offer the most traversed path as an alternate navigation path how wonderful would that be?

In reality it would open up our thinking and our site to the ethos of Web 2.0 where the community/users determine how they want to see the information to be structured. Tagging content pages and then tracking the common tag clusters and using that information to allow a tag based navigation that is self learning in time creates the most logical navigation path that lo and behold follows no definable hierarchies. All of a sudden the content flow is as fluid as our users make it.

Anyone who has browsed typical Web 2.0 sites would realize how much of stickiness and involvement such a thinking can bring to our till now rigid straight jacket web sites. Its time to take a new look at navigation all over again just when we thought it was a subject long dealt with.

About the Author

Sabyasachi Mitter
Interface Business Solutions
Interface Business Solutions provides web development and web application development services and consulting to clients across the world including samsung, UTStarcom, Morphy Richards and many more

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