Effective classification and navigation are crucial parts of a well-functioning website. No matter how compelling your content, tools, and functionality are, if site visitors can’t find your resources, they can’t use them. And if they don’t understand how resources fit in with your organization’s bigger picture, you’ll have a difficult time engaging those users in an ongoing, holistic way. You can help to avoid these pitfalls by ensuring that your website’s classification and navigation are designed to meet the needs of your organization, your content, and your audience.
Classification is the process of assigning specific things (webpages, tools, product descriptions, etc.) to categories. Categories allow us to use our existing knowledge of the world to make sense of new information.
Classification schemes, which define the systemic logic of categories, are everywhere. Your local supermarket is a good example of one. Fruits, vegetables, bread, dairy, and condiments are all arranged in categories that reflect the supermarket’s stock of items, the business priorities of its owners, and prior knowledge of its customers.
As a shopper, you can easily remember where to find, say, coffee, or those fancy English muffins that not everyone carries. You would also have a pretty good idea where to look if someone asked you to pick up, say, canned beets, or (even better) a watermelon.
To be effective, the supermarket’s classification scheme must match your understanding of how groceries are stocked. You would likely be surprised, for instance, to find canned beets next to the fresh beets and rutabagas. There’s no reason they couldn’t be located there, but it probably wouldn’t be the first place you’d look.
On your hunt for watermelon (a much better choice than beets, let’s admit), you would most likely head to the part of the store where you know you’d also find bananas, apples, and oranges. All of this despite the fact that the watermelon is the official state vegetable of Oklahoma. (Gasp!)
“Watermelon as fruit” matches the mental model of most grocery shoppers. Watermelon’s saucy little secret, however, is that it’s a member of the cucumber family. It’s also grown like a vegetable crop, using vegetable production systems. This won’t matter if you’re looking for a healthy summer treat, but it can make a world of difference if you’re a horticulturalist searching for information on watermelon varietals or working on research to create a disease-resistant watermelon stock. In each case, the most effective classification scheme matches the assembled collection of resources, the priorities of the organization that hosts that collection, and the prior knowledge of users that need to find particular items within it.
An effective classification scheme allows you to sort and locate everything within a given collection with a similar level of effort. Items in a grocery store may be closer or further from the door, but they all take about the same level of effort to locate. Though you may not buy watermelon every day (or even see them year-round), you’ve got a pretty good idea of where they’ll be when they’re in season.
If a classification scheme is like a grocery store, we can think of navigation as more like a kitchen. In the grocery store, items are classified in a way that makes them all equally easy to locate. In the kitchen, resources are grouped for use based on tasks performed in context (i.e. cooking, usually). You may have, for instance, olive oil and soy sauce in the same cupboards, or sitting next to each other beside the stove. You won’t find them grouped together in the grocery store, but in the kitchen, that arrangement helps you get things done more quickly.
Likewise, you may have sugar next to the coffee and tea because you often use those items together. You might also have a bag of sugar in the pantry, which, if you’re like many folks, is next to the flour and rice (and occasionally in vague proximity to an enterprising line of ants). This duplication and overlap of organizing schemes works in the kitchen because if affords you easier access to the resources you need most often, and most often need together.
Just like in the kitchen, website navigation provides priority access to particular items in the classification scheme:
- Global navigation usually provides one-click access to the top levels of a classification scheme, which affords users an easy access point into site hierarchy.
- Secondary navigation on landing pages gives an isolated view of deeper hierarchy structures within a single subsection, helping users focus on a single area.
- Utility navigation may afford ready access to key features like bill pay, a set of profile management options, or links to social media.
- Footer navigation often contains links to content deep in “about the organization” categories, like contact information, privacy policies, mission and vision statements, and job announcements.
- Contextual navigation within page content can guide users through specific task flows like sales funnels or narrowing product facets.
The fact that these navigation affordances overlap, duplicate access to content, and offer alternative organizing principles (such as product facets like color, price, and size) provide different users different ways to accomplish different tasks. In the same way that you can make guacamole or watermelon punch in the same kitchen, effective websites afford site visitors a range of ways to interact with them and a variety of methods to accomplish key tasks.
The Problem with Fruitgetables
Problems arise, however, when classification schemes—be they physical or digital—try to be all things to all people. Stocking sugar on three different shelves in the grocery store leads to wasted space and frustrated stock-keepers. What’s worse, if supply runs out in one of those locations, shoppers who encounter that empty shelf are liable to think it’s out of stock store-wide and give up their search. On the web, duplicate content leads users (both human and algorithmic) to wonder what the difference is between two identical resources in different locations—and become frustrated when no clear answer can be found.
No one comes to the supermarket for fruitgetables. Understanding and attending to the different, overlapping roles of classification and navigation can help ensure that we never offer this as an option. By creating clear, consistent systems for organizing content, and then providing contextual, task-informed pathways through that content, we can better help our users understand what kind of information space they’re in, where to find the information they’re looking for, and how they can accomplish their goals with it.
Classification schemes provide a chance to tell a story. What kind of place is this? How do those responsible for it understand the world? What are their values? When we focus on navigation at the expense of the purposeful classification of resources, we pass up the opportunity to clearly communicate this story. Nestle the watermelon in with the cucumbers at your local supermarket, and your shoppers will probably wonder who has gone mad (or who has just quit). Do this to your visitors on the web, and you leave them to wander, stumbling from one confusing category to the next, until they finally leave your site for someplace more intelligible (which, in these cases, usually doesn’t take long).
Stop leaving your users to stumble around your site. Build a classification system that compliments your navigation. Get in touch.