Your web site should be like the world itself: Inviting and “flat”

When Thomas L. Friedman asserted that The World Is Flat, he was referring to the interconnectedness of this newly networked world. He could have also been referring to the structure of an ideal web site. Why should it be flat? The site needs to offer a way for nearly everyone to efficiently find everything with the fewest possible barriers.

Ryan Singer of 37Signals reminded me of this when he wrote that web architects should think about paths instead of hierarchies. He writes:

My friend did some work for a shoe company who wished to hide six different kinds of shoes behind a gate called “Performance”. When my friend asked 40 uninvolved people in his office what the category “performance” meant to them, only 10 had even a vague idea. So hierarchies have their problems.

My team’s web architects have often run into the same thing when beginning a redesign of a client’s web site. The language used in the architecture often hides what users are striving to find. Ryan’s solution is to, “Collect all the paths you can think of in a pile, pull out the 8 paths that 80% of your visitors come looking for, and that’s your home page. When paths overlap or the same customer needs them, weave them together.”

I’d council to do the following, as a supplement to this excellent advice:

  1. Build your path list, to use Ryan’s term, by scrutinizing many a visitors’ navigation of last resort. Namely, look at behavior in your site’s search function. As I’ve mentioned earlier, mining your internal search data can reveal much about what your web site is hiding from user!
  2. Consider approaching the challenge in terms of audience, and not exclusively in terms of most popular pages (such as the eight paths accounting for “80% of visitors”). The reason? Your visitors may be leaving before they find some of your most popular content.

Finally, I’d add this word of caution — three times, in fact: Test, test test! Your key audience may be of a generation where an indiosynchatic navigation system my more useful, but too initially initimidating. Baby boomers and their elders came from a time when hierarchy was not a dirty word. They may instead have a much shorter word for an elegant but unexpected site navigation: chaos!

Have I missed any other tips in making a site as flat as the digital world where it resides?