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Navigation problems

Linear navigation

Learners do no feel they have control over their experiences with linear navigation. At times, this is comforting (don't have to think either!), but often it can also be confining and even intolerable.

If you use linear navigation for some or all of a product, provide a constant "escape hatch," or way out for anyone who doesn't want to finish but doesn't want to back all the way up either. Sometimes just knowing there is a way out makes people more comfortable with the linear experience.

The second major support you can give learners in a linear navigation situation is to let them know how much more of the experience there is left to go. "Screen 5/6" tells me I'm almost done, whereas "screen 12/180" lets me know I should try to relax because there's a long way to go.


Pure out/in structures can induce a kind of motion-sickness in learners who constantly have to click back to the main location in order to see the next display of interest, or to check that they have, indeed, followed all the short little paths that are open.

In addition, out/in structures are difficult to print or to check for currency and editorial problems. Since the content is so "chopped up," an out/in structure can be a real maintenance problem if it is not created as a database or templated system.

If you're using an out/in structure, be sure there is only one navigation choice on each "out" display -- the one for "in."Also, consider bring each "out" display to the learner in a window that sits on top of, but does not totally obscure the "in" window below. This enhances the feeling of stability, as if the content were coming to the learner instead of the other way around...

Hierarchy In a pure hierarchy, learners will wear themselves out "running back and forth" -- up one leg of the hierarchy and down the other. It is tempting to make them do it too, because solutions for the problem inevitably bring messy questions with them -- "There would have to be 45 links on every page for people to go directly from one to another -- we can't do that, can we?" Possibly you could, but probably you will have to compromise between making the hierarchy clean and clear, and making the navigation of it efficient. Very often you can get the furthest toward a solution by examining your content -- does the hierarchy you have really need to be so deep? complex? Perhaps it does not.
Simultaneous access In a simultaneous access structure, learners probably need some kind of a map. It might be a "big list" of links accessible from every page so that learners can check it periodically or use it to move through the site. It might be an actual map or diagrammatic representation of the site. Without such a navigational aid, the underlying structure of the site may seem to the learners to be no structure at all. When there are no paths, only those learners capable of forming an independent mental image of the structure will be able to navigate confidently.
Web Lost in hyperspace -- or, actually, in someone else's brain. Unless your learners set out to have a confusing and disjointed experience in which the value lies mainly in serendipity, pure web structures are just a problem. You might be teaching your learners to unravel the way in which you conceive of a topic and then use that information to build their own mental models. If you are not, leave the pure web structures to experimental applications and entertainment/literary products in which the journey is the reward.
Mixed navigation

Mixed navigation is the norm, and it should be. Different parts of an experience often call for different underlying structures. Be sure that you keep track of which structures you are using and where, however.

The most common mistake to make in a mixed structure is to provide linear feedback along with nonlinear - for the same pages. If you have linear segments of content and they use linear navigation - great! But don't give people next/previous buttons to navigate through pages that are also accessible through a menu somewhere else unless you stop the linear navigation at the points where topics change on the menu. Otherwise, your audience will "next" their way right through your whole menu without knowing they have crossed topic boundaries, or get very confused because what comes "next" may have no real logic behind it except that it was next on a list that the user can't even see.

Big and little navigation

Think of your navigation in terms of physical space -- some movements are bigger than others, right? Getting up and leaving a room is different than moving from one chair to another and settling back down to read. Likewise, making a U-turn to try and find the road to the mall is different than walking one block from here and turning right.

Once you have planned a structure and the movements that it will require, group those into "bigger" and "littler" navigation movements together. The forms you design to represent or accomplish these different kinds of movements should be grouped together on your displays -- big with big and little with little. You can make finer distinctions and more groupings if you want to, but this is the place to start. This step alone will prevent a good number of problems with representing navigation.

Krug, S. (2000). Don't make me think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Indianapolis, IN: Que.

Nielsen, J. (1999). Designing Web Usability : The Practice of Simplicity. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing.

Each of these books is relatively new. Both of them address themselves to the web, but either of them is a perfectly valid source for practical advice on usability issues and design that supports ease-of-use. Neither one is cheap, so make your choice based on time -- Krug's book is shorter and uses more graphical methods to explain the text; Nielsen's also uses a lot of screen examples, but is a denser text that will take you longer to read.

Designing navigation


Experienced designers give identical advice time and time again -- begin designing navigation on paper, not on the screen!

It is so tempting to think that we can keep the whole structure of what we're building in our heads. Some people can, but that doesn't mean it's the right way to design. So, what does working on paper do for the designer?

  1. forces you to think about the structure in concrete terms ... what should go where, and how should everything be linked?
  2. allows you to create categories, or levels, or whatever is appropriate and then be consistent about applying them -- in your head it is too easy to get confused, even with your own system!
  3. allows you to show your conceptual structure to others for the purposes of formative evaluation -- an important part of all design processes.
  4. lets you work quickly and make changes without too much trouble -- without having to change all the electronic pages you have already built.

Some web design tools allow you to set up your site structure before you create web pages or style sheets -- it's the same idea as beginning on paper. You need to start by looking at the whole structure.

Once you have the structure mapped out, create a "blueprint" that shows what the major sections of your screen are going to be -- this is the sketch or storyboard that you hand in as an interim deliverable. In this sketch you plan where the screen titles, navigation elements, text, and other parts of the display are going to go. Use it as your own template and stick to it ... people should be concentrating on what you're trying to teach them -- not on the amazing variation in your screen layouts!


Designers, novice and experienced designers alike, come in two primary flavors -- the conservative and the exuberant.

Types of designers and their potential strengths






avoids some of the bad mistakes brought on by overdoing it

learns to use a few techniques really well instead of many techniques poorly

creates elegant, usable design

may create design systems that endure through time and allow others to create credible work with less ability


can discover more, faster than most others do

gets mistakes out of the way early

creates lively, engaging design

provides true support for representing information in the best way for each context


Types of designers and the pitfalls they encounter






creates boring design

falls prey to design paralysis -- "I can't do that -- oops, better not try that ..."

creates repetitive design; lifeless design -- "grindware" instead of "mindware" -- the best test for this stuff is to find out if the designer would ever use it

exuberant may create circus design -- loud, distracting, not always entertaining for the right reasons and liable to leave you with a stomachache

creates privileged design - boutique products

or worse, creates products that have great opening screens and fabulous menu bars but either do not get finished or do not actually contain anything to be learned

Design professionals spend a lot of time berating the exuberant designers -- especially novice exuberants who want to use the latest and greatest techniques for their own sake regardless of the distraction factor they may introduce, or in ignorance of whether such techniques might be suited to the design problem at hand. Many an exuberant designer has envisioned far more than could be built, spent far more than was budgeted, and left disillusionment behind instead of satisfaction. And it is true that you can goof up a design far more easily through exuberance than you can through conservatism.

Even so, designing without any spark or enthusiasm produces its own problem - namely, really deadly products. Unfortunately, education and training -- parts of the world where people have a tendency to take themselves far too seriously -- have generally erred on the side of conservatism and deadliness for a long, long time. There are at least three reasons for this.

  1. Not enough people with serious media design skills participate in creating instructional products. It's not where the money is, so it's not where the glamor is. If you want truly glamorous products you can try Hollywood, but you shouldn't overlook the military and, more recently, the booming health care industry. (The same is true for computer programming, by the way -- not too many serious programmers form life's ambitions to create better CBT.)
  2. Education and training have spent years and years in a heavily cognitivist posture (although not purely, and not altogether incorrectly - this is not a theory rant!). Emphasis on rationalism and analysis, in learning as well as in design of materials, tends to dampen exuberance in the design process.
  3. Media design holds an ambiguous position in this field. If you were studying marketing, you might cringe at the wholesale use of media techniques for manipulating people's emotions and actions -- but media techniques are too frequently underused in educational materials, seemingly through a fear that they will be misused, and certainly in ignorance of the positive role they might play if given a chance.

Both types of designers are needed, preferably working in balance with each other and working individually to make the most of their strengths. Whichever type you are, now is a good time to start recognizing it and looking for design situations that help you to do your best work.


What kind of designer are you?

  1. My ideas are always ten times bigger than the product I finally finish.
  2. The main idea in design is to push toward solutions that don't exist now - to get better.
  3. Most things in design have already been done anyway -- it's important to do the right thing well, unique or not.
  4. If I'm not going to be able to produce the effect (or animation, sound, "look"), it's not responsible to waste time on imagining it.
  5. Every situation calls for a new look at design -- you can't slap the same design on every problem.
  6. When I'm working on a design everything I see looks like something I could incorporate into it -- it's so much fun, and there are so many good ideas out there!
  7. The real trick in design is take away as much as you possibly can without destroying the final product. What's left is the real design.
  8. Untested solutions to design problems are no solutions at all.

What do you think -- more exuberant? more conservative? Both are fine -- and all these statements are valid,as long as none of them is followed to the exclusion of all others. If you agreed with all of them, you were thinking too hard :)

If you are exuberant -- seek out sober colleagues who will ask you hard questions about consistency and functionality.

If you are conservative, cultivate a boisterous friend or two who will shake you up now and then with demands for more interesting or daring solutions to your design problems.

Sano, D. (1996). Designing large-scale web sites: A visual design methodology. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons. (As low as $13.00 on )

Boling, E. & Kirkley, S. (1995). Interaction design for multimedia software. AAIM 4th Annual Conference on Multimedia in Education and Industry.

Boling, E. (1999). Introduction to interface design. Guest lecture.

copyright 2001 Elizabeth Boling and Indiana University
Elizabeth Boling
5 June 2000