Physical Navigation Models
For a moment let’s discuss the historical antecedents of web navigation in case there are any clues there. The antecedent of web navigation is of course physical navigation. Jared Spool talks about the scent of information and studies they have done suggest that the same parts of the brain are used to look for information on the web as to hunt for animals in the woods – certainly one of the oldest searches done by people. And, like hunting, searching on the web seems to be going well when we believe we are narrowing in on the information. If the things we’re passing seem to be increasingly similar to what we’re looking for we’re reassured and continue looking. If we suddenly see the tools sections when looking for lingerie we are likely to give up and ask for help – the scent is cold.
But surely there is a model for navigation that is closer to web navigation than hunting in the woods. Surely hunting for things in the human-designed physical world is closer to hunting for things in the human-designed web world. As a former architect student I know there are at least cultural clues if not universal cues to navigation within the design of buildings. In a residence one expects a coat closet to be near the main entry; the elevators of a public building are usually in a central core visible from the main entry; private offices or private rooms are usually furthest from the entry and often higher in the structure.
Physical design conventions are similar to menus – because of conventions we know where to start looking for mission statements or legal jargon (if anyone actually does look for these things) just as we suspect tools will be in the basement and lingerie on an upper floor or back corner. You would probably look to a menu in the footer for a link to job listings or a legal statement; You might look to the main menu near the top left of the page for mission statements or contact information.
But many buildings provide us with additional search methods just as websites do. The search box is most like the information person in the building entry – just ask them where lingerie is. The index is similar to the list of offices near the entry or the escalators – if you know the name of what you’re looking for it might be listed there.
Different people seem to preference different methods of looking for things physically and on the web. Some people prefer to just ask at the information desk (search). Some like the anonymity of the index. Others are content to browse on their way, but have a general idea that lingerie will be in an upper floor, not near the entry. Do we preference the same methods in the physical world as in the web world? Some people always go first to the search box; others start by looking at the menus; are these the same preferences they make in the real world? Think about your preferences both on the web and in the world.
Types of Searches
Sometimes you know exactly what you’re looking for; sometimes you’re browsing. Although personal preference may drive us most of the time, we’ve all used non-favorite search methods at times.
|Exactitude||Physical Wayfinding||Web Wayfinding|
|Least exact; least limiting||maps; design convention||site maps; menu|
|Moderately exact||information desk||search|
|Most exact; most limiting||list of office/store addresses||index|
But what about less coherent searches? What if you’re looking for “something for my sister for her birthday”. Then you might be likely to browse – women’s clothing or jewelry? Tools? Books?
What if instead of something specific like a particular running shoe, you’re looking for something purple; perhaps you need a gift for a friend that likes purple. This is a search that cuts across typical categories. Don’t expect the store to have a purple section! For this purple search you might browse through clothing, then jewelry, then dishes looking for something purple to catch your eye. On the website for a store you might try to enter in “purple” but you could expect to only find items that had the word purple in the brand, rather than the color of the object itself. The databases on most products on the web are not yet reliable with respect to details of this sort.
Remember the old days when as a kid you would sit cross-legged on the floor, drag out the “D” volume of the encyclopedia or open the dictionary and look for Dragons? And then suddenly you’re finding out what a dragoon is. If you’re willing to change your mind about what you’re looking for then a less exact search allows for serendipitous discoveries.
So we provide these different methods because different people preference different methods; different searches require different methods, and because we all change methods if we can’t find what we’re looking for.
But is this the way it will always be?
Search Engines Capability
Think of Star Trek. Did Kirk ever look for information on the Klingon vessel by looking for Library – Vessel Schematics – Enemy Vessels – Klingon … No. Of course not. He just asked the computer “where is the power source for the cloaking device in a Klingon ship?” We are led to believe that in the future we will have all-powerful search engines and navigation will become obsolete. Apparently we’ll always be able to tell the computer (or Siri or Hey, Google) to search for the exact thing we’re looking for.
Maybe if Kirk didn’t have such a powerful search engine and had browsed for his answer he would have discovered a different weakness in the Klingon vessel. Is an exact search always the right answer?
Are there more possibilities? What if in the search for a birthday present the search engine could reply: “you bought your sister a book for the last three birthdays, would you like to do that again?” or maybe – “63% of women buying presents for their younger sister over the age of 13 select jewelry – would you like to start there?”. I’m not denying that would be useful, just a little creepy and it might be uncomfortable if Google suddenly proposed that level of information. However that is the direction the search engines appear to be going – into personal information as well as the realm of Mashups – combining several databases to solve complex queries.
Using personal data with other data in mash-ups is still in its infancy and maturing rapidly. My phone can tell me that milk is on my shopping list and I’m now about to pass a store that sells milk. Other apps can tell me that an item I’ve been looking for is on sale at a particular site; Amazon will propose items that are similar to those I’ve bought or looked at in the past. Facebook is getting us used to this brave new world – and users are frequently in a battle to hide information from some apps and expose information to others. This surely is a growth area for web searching. What do you know about your site customers browsing history that might help them find something in the future? Do they want this kind of help? Would they feel good or bad if the site remembered the last Major they were looking at and made assumptions on that basis?
Different navigation methods are useful for different kinds of searches, based both on personal preferences and on the kind of search. Our users can choose different methods depending on the exactitude of the search, whether the search fits into predictable categories, and whether the user is in a rush or willing to browse. And then there is the increasing availability of personal data about the user such as where they are located and their history of choices and behaviors.
How do you look for information on the web? Do you have a similar style in the physical world? What makes the search valuable or productive? When would you change methods? What about your user would help you find information for them in the future?