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Each image can be shown in full size (640x480) if you click on the small version in this table.

person on street with horizon

Physical space ... you can scan the horizon and use your peripheral vision. Your view is analog -- it changes smoothly as you move around.


person in space looking through a tube; insert views from the tube

Electronic space ... you still feel as though you're there, but your view is limited. You can only see one segment of your surroundings at a time, and your view is digital -- chopped up into discrete units. On February 15, 2001, at Indiana University, Patrick Lynch, coauthor of the Web Style Guide, described this phenomenon as "looking at the world through the end of a cardboard toilet-paper tube."

The space I am moving in ...

Why do we speak about "navigation" when we set out to design electronic materials? The people using those materials are not going anywhere; in fact, usually they are glued to their chairs, staring at a screen of some kind. In a virtual reality system they may be experiencing the simulation of movement through physical space, but in multimedia and hypertexts, the people are not moving at all -- it's the display that is changing.

Interestingly enough, however, people describe this "sitting - and -watching - screen - displays - change" experience using the same words they use for physical motion through space ... 

  • "Well, I was just on that screen -- why can't I get back there?"
  • "I have two more sections to go to and then I'm done."
  • "Ok -- now I'm really lost!"

Why do we do this? Lakoff and Johnson (1980) suggest the answer when they explain that all human experience is understood by us in physical terms, and that all our language is metaphorical with its origins in the relationship of our physical selves to the rest of the world. We use a remarkably few concepts born of physicality (location, containers, body movement) to express, by means of metaphor, everything else that we think about or experience. 

Designers need to recognize and respect the cues that users give us when they express their experiences in the language of physical navigation. The design of a navigation structure is not about the buttons on the screen or the list of links ... those are the forms that give users access to the structure.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. ( 1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. (May be able to get as low as $5.19 at )

If you have any interest in human-computer interface design, you must own and read this book. Whether you agree with the premise and the findings presented in it or not, your colleagues will be familiar with it and expect you to know what it says.

Lynch, P. & Horton, S. (1999). Web style guide: Basic design principles for designing web sites. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. This style guide is also available via the web as The Web Style Guide from the Yale Center for Advanced Instructional Media.

Lynch and Horton divide up the concepts in navigation a little differently than I do in this document, but they cover the same major categories. Since their focus is on instructional media, rather than on marketing or e-commerce, the advice from this style guide is especially pertinent for designers of instructional and informational media.

copyright 2001 Elizabeth Boling and Indiana University
Elizabeth Boling
18 May 2000