Remember when we used to "surf" the web? The web was new and a word was needed to express an activity which did not exist before. We "surfed" on the new medium to express the uniqueness of what we were doing. The novelty of using the web has worn off. People are reverting to common utility verbs: we browse a catalog, we look at a magazine, we listen to an album. We often still express doing these things "online" to distinguish between the offline and online worlds but this distinction has already started to fade as well.
How are we moving through the web or through digital products then? If we are not surfing anymore, what are we doing? And how can we, as people designing these experiences, guide users on their journeys or, in general, give them tools or means to reach their goals?
I'm going to use the analogy of sailing. We are no longer riding waves near windy beaches on small boards of wood – the ocean got bigger and so did our modes of transportation.
Moving Through Digital Products
In this article I'm going to examine three basic ways users are moving from point A to point B.
Guided: You are standing at the helm of your ship, somebody tells you exactly when and to which degree to turn the steering wheel to reach a certain destination.
Navigating: Somebody gave you a map. With the help of the map you plot your own course to the destination, you steer the ship yourself. You know where you want to go.
Exploring: You steer your ship but you have no map and you don't know where you want or need to go exactly – you just enjoy being on the open sea.
Adopted to the case of digital products and the UX designers point of view we might say:
Guided: Guide users by clear means that stand out, e.g. distinct call-to-action buttons or by only showing one available next action. Show them where they are in the process, how they can progress and indicate when they will reach the goal.
Navigating: Users are navigating inside a logical and intuitive structure, the mental model they have of the system matches its reality. They can rely on what they already learned from the system or from other, similar systems. In this sense they are in known terrain and can rely on a map that was provided.
Exploring: We let users explore on their own inside a yet unknown system with no guidance. They will discover things by themselves. We can even sprinkle riddles, shortcuts and secrets pathways in the user flows to make it more interesting.
The three mentioned approached are seldom used only by themselves and should be be mixed in a single product.
When designing information architecture, user flows and navigation patterns the aim should always be to allow users to reach their goals most efficiently, intuitively and satisfying. In most cases the following principle should be applied:
Provide a structured system that matches users mental models of the domain. Offer guidance to allow them to achieve their goals. Create details or areas which can be discovered and lead to moments of surprise and wonder along the way, these must not be essential to the intended user flow though.
This is true for most but not all products. As always: "it depends". Let's go through the three approaches separately and see which one is best suited for which situations.
Don't make me think!
Users are lead to a certain goal. They know at all times what the next possible steps are, what they mean and how much steps are left in the process. Ideally there is only one next step available. No or only few decisions have to be made.
When is it appropriate?
When you want to tell a linear story, e.g. the only action available is to scroll down, read and experience something.
If the user should go through a necessary and clearly defined process, e.g. a registration or a multi-step form.
In general, if you want to make sure your users reach a certain goal or state.
Users do not have to make decisions and can focus on the content itself.
Users are restricted and have little to no freedom to make choices. They can not deviate from a pre-made flow.
I Can Do It by Myself!
Letting Users Navigate on Their Own
Users are making informed decisions by themselves based on a good information architecture. The UX Designers job is to provide good maps to users so they can see what is possible and how to get there if they want to. Do not try to create a new mapping system, a new coordination system, new ways to color land and water, etc. Your map should be familiar to people who are already used to the prevalent way maps are designed.
Try to find out what the mental models of the users look like in the domain you are designing for. Do not only rely on those of internal stakeholders. The client might have a view of a product catalog that is based on their suppliers, the engineers might have a mental model of the product catalog based on a database schema, etc. These internal models are not appropriate to be reflected in the information architecture you create for the target audience.
Fundamentally the following points should be strived for when designing navigation patterns for a digital product.
Simplicity: The most simple structure possible should be chosen. This is true for the information architecture as a whole but also for how navigation is presented and interacted with.
Clarity: Users do not have to learn anything new. This is true for the internals of the product (see consistency) but also in relation to all other websites and products users already know. See also "Jakob's Law":
"Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know."
Consistency: The navigation behaves and looks the same all the time. It can be found at the same location.
Orientation: Users should know where they are in relation to other places (pages) at all times. If lost, they should be able to return to the starting point.
When is it appropriate?
If various forms of information, content and processes are combined in a single product.
A clear and consistent structure helps to improve usability and accessibility.
Users are not restricted. They can reach their goals in their own personal way.
Digital products which are too predictable might have a harder time surprising users or give them something new to experience. Users are free to choose any path they like, thus they are harder to guide. The actual user flows are harder to steer and predict.
I Wonder Where This Path Leads!
Let Them Explore
Users need to discover things before understanding the system. They need to learn about it and navigation is not necessarily intuitive. Little or no guidance is provided.
When is it appropriate?
If you want to tell an interactive story.
Put users into a certain role and see a situation from a new perspective. Learning is best done from a first hand experience.
If discovering something by yourself is important for the message or the experience of the product.
The journey is the goal™
There are discoveries to be made and rewards to be gained. Puzzles can be solved and secret pathways and shortcuts are to be taken. Since it might not be clear to users where and in what kind of system they are in, how it works and where it leads, feelings of wonder and surprise can be generated.
Users must bring with them patience and motivation for discovery to try and get to know various unknowns. If the system is not understood or if it is too easy to understand or "solve" users might feel frustrated or disappointed.
Know Your Target Audience
When designing user flows always put yourself in the shoes of your target audience, you have to know the mental models they hold of the domain you are working with. Early user research, user-tests and interviews are a great way to achieve this. Define the most important use cases of your digital product for your various personas and go through them from their perspective. Do this with your whole team. Everybody involved the project should have a good and aligned understanding of users. Always try to think about user needs and goals. How can you move as much barriers out of their way as possible and let them reach their destination as frictionless and satisfying as possible? This should be our number one concern when creating information architecture and user flows.