Re: Site Structure vs. Site Navigation

From: Michael Bernstein <webmaven lvcm com>
Hello all,

In my experience, it usually does not make sense to organize
a sites content (and by implication the site's main
navigation) by any other method than a strict singly-rooted
topical heirarchy (there is an exception to this which I'll
discuss later). When organizing content in this way, you are
primarily concerned with a documents *subject*, not it's
format or audience. This lets experienced visitors find the
specific content they're looking for quickly, as well as
making it clear to contributors and maintainers where new
documents should be placed (Q:"Does the GNOME applet
tutorial belong in the applet section or the tutorial
section?" A: In the applet section, because there is no
'tutorial section').

A thought that I have had aperiodicly for the last year or so is
that it might be better to organize the data along two axes.  If we
consider the vertical hierarchy to be the primary axis, we should
keep in mind a lateral axis and provide a means to navigate that as

                           main gate-+
     +GTK        +Developer   +Gnotices   +Office     +Apps   ....
     |           |            |           |           |
     +Gnotices   +Gnotices    +Gnotices   +Gnotices   +Gnotices
     |           |                        |           |
     +Tutorials  +Tutorials               +Tutorials  +Tutorials
     |           |                        |           |
     +White      +White Papers            +White      +White
     | Papers    |                        | Papers    | Papers
     |           |                        |           |
     + ...       + ...                    + ...       + ...

(this is, admittedly, an over-simplification)

If we think about a structure like the above, the GTK->Gnotices page
would show two navigational interfaces.  The first should show the
GTK tree (this is the primary interface).  The second should show
the other Gnotices areas that are available.  The other pages would
be arranged similarily.

Care needs to be taken that one path is the primary while still
making the other optional.  If done well, this should help encourage
users to move beyond their initial interest into other areas of the
site, provide a richer set of content for them.

Cross-linking of content also plays an important role in this.  It
might be good to identify links to content on different sub-sites so
that the user realizes s/he is leaving (say) the's
GNOME Writer to go to to look at information about

Note however, that this does *not* mean that visitors who
wish to navigate by some other method are thwarted, but
rather that supplemental navigation methods are needed as
well. As a trivial example, a 'what's new' box on the front
page can list the three or five most recently added or
revised content items in the site, and link to them
directly, as well as linking to a more detailed 'what's new'
page (a chronological schema) that offers further
subcategorization (for example a page that lists the most
recently added or revised tutorials, and another that lists
applications). The point here is to lead people to the
content that they want by whatever route they choose, while
making it clear that the content they have found has a
specific location within the site as a whole (it helps here
if the URL matches the site structure).

agreed, ancilliary navigational tools are a great way of moving people
to other areas of the site.  In addition to "What's New" pages --
Site Maps, Spotlighted content, and the like are also good examples.

Similar supplemental navigation pages that organize a site's
content according to other schemas (by author, document
type, etc.) are all possible to generate automatically, as
long as the content has the appropriate meta-information
attached to it. Additionally, we should not neglect the use
of in-line links to create easy access points to content
deep in the site, as well as cross-linking documents.

The exception I alluded to earlier is that it is also
possible to organize a site's content to encourage community
contributions, by letting visitors 'join' the site and
giving them a personal folder that they can add content to.
This has the disadvantage of scattering the bulk of the
site's content across many personal folders (essentially
organizing the site according to author). It then becomes
neccessary to create the main navigation schema (a topical
heirarchy) as well as the supplemental navigation methods
automatically by using meta-information.

Including a wiki style or reply style section can provide incentive to 'join in', without unduly spreading the content into an unmanageable heap.

The two questions that must be answered considering these
two approaches (although they're not mutually exclusive)

a) Do we expect (or want) most content to come from outside
contributors ('outside', in the context of an open-source
project, meaning non-core developers), or from a smaller

b) Should a document be 'owned' by it's author/maintainer,
or belong to the site as a whole? Before I get flamed on
that second question, please consider whether a developer
should for example 'own' their application's listing on the
site, as well as any supplementary documentation they care
to add. If so, it should probably be placed within the
maintainers personal folder.

I would very much like to hear other thoughts on this
subject, but please keep in mind that I've deliberately
avoided discussing layout, graphics, implementation details
or specific tools at this stage.


Michael Bernstein.

P.S. If you've noticed that I've not mentioned a search
interface, congratulations. I do not consider a search
interface, however good, a replacement for good structure
and navigation. A user should never be forced to search.
Unfortunately, many sites use search as a band-aid for poor
structure and navigation.

Agreed, with the caveat that a good search tool is a wonderful (and
often unimplemented) supplement to good structure and well planned
navigation.  Please don't throw out the baby with the bathwater on
this one.


P.P.S two excellent books on structuring sites and
navigation are 'Web Navigation: Designing the User
Experience' by Jenifer Fleming, and 'Information
Architecture for the World Wide Web' by Louis Rosenfeld and
Peter Moreville. Both books are from O'Reilly.

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