October 27, 2008

Every Button Tells a Story, Don’t It?


We can get into almost any car and drive away without much trouble. Find the ignition, put the car in gear, grab the steering wheel and go. The readout on the dashboard might be a slightly different color from car to car, but we don’t need much more than a quick look around to get started. We can do this because the controls from one car to the next are very similar. Standardization makes the interface transparent. We drive away without a problem.

Corporate web sites are much the same. (Jakob Nielsen calls these Web sites “About Us” Web Sites.) Again and again we see the same buttons at the top: About Us, Products, Services, News & Events, Contact Us. From site to site, the information is categorized into a similar set of organizational buckets and the labels on the options are similar (often identical). Again, a standard set of controls helps make the interface transparent, bringing site content to the forefront.

If we were to rank the importance of words on your Web site from most often viewed to least often viewed, a news headline on the home page would rank relatively highly compared to a VP’s bio three levels down on the site. However, that news headline on the home page is only going to be viewed once before the user moves on to a another page on the site. The words in the navigation bar, however, are persistent throughout the user’s entire experience on your site. Along with your corporate logo at the top of the page they are the only elements in front of the user throughout the site.

How can we take advantage of these persistent words in the navigation bar  and use them to express a company’s value and personality?

One way is to change the labels that already exist into something more expressive. Boston Consulting Group does this by using the label ‘Impact and Expertise’ rather than something more bland like ‘Research’ or ‘Services’. Nelly Moser,a provider of mobile services platforms, is another example. It uses the descriptive name of its services, ‘Mobile 2.0,’ in the navigation bar.

Another way to express personality and value through the navigation is to add a section to the Web site describing the company’s differentiators. The Web site for DLA Piper, an international business law firm, is a great example of this. The last item in the navigation bar is titled “Social Responsibility”. Not a standard item on a corporate Web site, but in this context it expresses the importance that the firm puts on social responsibility in relationship to its brand.

In the same way that trying to drive a car with the gearshift on the left side of the steering wheel would confuse most drivers (in the US, at least), using non-standard navigational labels on your Web site might introduce confusion for users expecting more familiar wording. This can be a delicate balance. It can be easy to go too far unless you know your users well or conduct usability testing.

The moral: Look for opportunities to take advantage of your site’s navigation to express the value and personality of your organization. But be careful, going too far can result in an incoherent mess.

Photo credit: heavenboundalso

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