Designing Web Navigation: Optimizing the User Experience

James Kalbach

Reviewed by Steve Kersten for ClickStart

First Figure Out What You’re Constraining…And Then Constrain It: Information Architecture Before Software Architecture

By the way…

Kalbach addresses the developer community mainly in his chapter on Analysis (pages 168 ff.). Here the business/technology/user comes into play. (Kalbach identifies an additional factor, content, that supports this triad: content, in the sense of the information your business already has created that it now needs to give users access to and let them work with, spans all three areas). Kalbach subordinates technology, front-end and back-end, to the needs of users and the nature and structure of the content already in play.

Once again I’m convinced that we as user experience professionals need to stress, as optimistically, forcefully, and graciously as possible, that activities that develop an information architecture, which conceptualizes what users need in the way they need it when they need it, must precede software architecture. As 37 Signals’ Getting Real advocates, “design the interface before you start programming.” Given that technology’s always a constraint, don’t start with the constraint until you know what it is you’ll be constraining. (Indeed, I find myself advocating more and more that we create the “what” in the form of a narrative and involve the technology folks in the process of creating the ideal framework: the experience that will be constrained.)

The RUP, for example, may consider the software architecture to be the riskiest part of a project, but it’s pretty clear that the information architecture guides the entire project. (Derived from user research and represented by the user interface’s information and interaction design, information architecture provides the inputs that set the stage for a software architecture to be built.) It’s not long before you realize that the UX team is a valuable and necessary partner for all activities where human beings use computers to get something done!

ISBN: 0596528108

After turning to James Kalbach’s new book again and again over the last several months, I realized two key points that have helped me explain why this is such a valuable book. I wonder if the title would be more descriptive of the book’s content if it were reversed: Optimizing the User Experience: Designing Web Navigation.

Contained in the phrase “Web navigation” is the whole world of user experience and designing for delightful engagements. Kalbach leads us through a discussion of user research and analysis, conceptual design, information structuring and architecture, layout and presentation, and formative and summative usability testing. He talks about almost every topic in the user experience design world. As I work though his book, I’m realizing his focus on the Web encapsulates his assumptions for technological concerns throughout. To me, he clearly puts the concept of navigation into the realm of user experience design.When you focus on navigation, you’re really paying attention to the details that are also more academically called “information architecture.” Especially in this rich Internet application/Web 2.0 world, where the distinction between applications on the Web and applications that run solely on your desktop is blurring, I’m tempted to say, but have yet to embroider it on a throw pillow: “it’s all information architecture.” So the book really applies to all design activities that could end up with a user interface that works to help folks accomplish their tasks.

Kalbach’s approach simplifies, clarifies, and presents practically the entire field of information architecture (in rather broad terms), with particular attention to Web sites and applications. Think of this intriguing book this way: it essentially guides you through the entire field of information architecture and Web design by presenting thorough explanation and discussion of almost every design topic you should be pondering. Weaving bibliographic references through the text, Kalbach gives you enough information to consider your design topic and then access material out in the world to further think about it and solve problems. The chapters are short, but they’re full of information. Not a single word is wasted.

Thirteen small but information-packed chapters, each ending with Questions (that turn the book into a superb classroom text) and Further Reading (extremely up to date references), are grouped into three main sections:

  • Foundations of Web Navigation
    (Introducing Web Navigation, Understanding Navigation, Mechanisms of Navigation, Types of Navigation, Labeling Navigation)
  • A Framework for Navigation Design
    (Evaluation, Analysis, Architecture, Layout, Presentation)
  • Navigation in Special Contexts
    (Navigation and Search, Navigation and Social Tagging Systems, Navigation and Rich Web Applications)

At almost 400 pages (8-inches by 10-inches, matching Jennifer Tidwell’s Designing Interfaces, also published by O’Reilly), Designing Web Navigation firmly sets itself into the literature on information architecture for practicing professionals as the midpoint of what I conceive of as a path of clarity, starting at Peter Van Dijck’s Information Architecture for Designers, and ending somewhere near Christina Wodtke’s Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web (with Rosenfeld and Morville’s “Polar Bear book” lurking just around the corner no matter where you are). Like Van Dijck, Kalbach outlines how to conceptualize what you’re working on. But unlike Van Dijck, Kalbach does so in much more detail through narrative. Van Dijck’s book is still supremely necessary for its graphic treatment and crystal clear presentation. And you’ll still want Wodtke’s book because Kalbach definitely stops before presenting the step-by-step instructions and coherent application of the skills that information architects need. (This is the area that Wodtke particularly excels in.) Nonetheless, Kalbach’s frequent references (mainly as footnotes) and the Further Readings section in each chapter provide the path to everything else you’d need to get tactical.

Demonstrating just how up-to-date Kalbach’s concerns and research are, part 3, Navigation in Special Contexts, begins to synthesize a lot of information that is just now getting book-length treatment. These chapters have served me well as my projects begin to move into the worlds of social computing and “single-page Web applications.”

Kalbach intersperses throughout his book small contributions, essentially side-notes, that add commentary and extend the discussion of the topic at hand; you’re always close to resources and thinkers who are able to add information and perspective to the concept he’s working through. We hear from folks like Ariane Kempken, Misha Vaughan, Eric Reiss, Donna Mauer, Mark Edwards, and Victor Lombardi. Kalbach annotates the book with notes on accessibility and internationalization.

I can’t recommend this book more highly. Time and again I turn to my bookshelf or to the Web, pause, check Designing Web Navigation first, and find the issue at hand treated clearly and helpfully. It strength in providing a starting point for further research is constantly proven. Check out the interactive table of contents at O’Reilly’s Web site, where you can read the beginnings of each chapter, and then pick up a copy for your bookshelf.