Isn't It Obvious?

An image of Times Square in New York

We all have our favorite Web sites that we go to when we want to check the news, drool over the latest gadget, read our favorite blog, or just waste some time online. If you’re like me, you go there and feel right at home because everything is where it should be (or least where you’ve gotten used to it being). Now, think back to the last time one of your favourite sites got redesigned…

Ah! The horror!

Even when done right, a Web site redesign inevitably requires a major cognitive shift for its existing audience. In order to minimize the impact of this shift while simultaneously creating an experience that will draw in new users, I find that the key is to start the process by asking the question, is it obvious?

In order to avoid overwhelming even the most experienced users, a Web site's visual cues and structure needs to just make sense. Let's start by taking a look at an example from real life: this past weekend I went grocery shopping at my favourite store. Normally, I have my grocery list ordered so that I can walk into the store, follow my usual path, grab items along the way, and check them off the list… in order (yes, I’m just that “organized”). On this trip, however, I discovered to my horror that the store had been completely renovated and everything had been moved around. My list was useless!

Fortunately, instead of falling into a crying heap on the floor, I had the presence of mind to look up. You see, like Web sites, stores also have visual cues for navigation. As I began to reluctantly move through the store I found that some items had moved and others hadn’t. There were larger signs on the walls indicating that I was entering the produce department and smaller signs hanging from the ceiling showing me the main categories found in each particular aisle. While I was grumpy that the store would deliberately mess with my list system, I found that it wasn't too difficult to adjust. Most things were still obvious. Signs were clear, in the places I expected them to be, and with product names that I understood.

On the other hand, I once had a favourite Web site that I visited for all my gadget needs. Every time they sent me an e-mail newsletter, I would immediately check out their site (Not only am I “organized”, I’m also a geek). One day, I clicked through from the newsletter only to find that everything had changed. I was lost and not just because items had moved, but names had changed. The new naming conventions followed company conventions and not standard Web conventions: for example, computer accessories were listed under “helpful add-ons”.

In the physical store, I could at least look around and see pretty much the entire place at once. On a Web site you can’t really do that, though. Site maps are nice, but they're not a replacement for an obvious, easy-to-follow navigational system or good information architecture (IA). If it isn’t obvious, people will get lost.

My UX mantra: make it make sense and work for the user.

As these experiences illustrate, it's essential when looking at a Web project to take a step back, discover who your users are, and ask a few questions:

  • What are they looking to accomplish?
  • What are they used to seeing or doing?
  • How can we guide them along?
  • How can you make it more obvious for them?

Making sense can be as simple as little things like ensuring that your search box says "Search" or uses magnifying glass instead of trying to be clever by changing the button to read “Go get it!” (Go get what? I just want to search!) Alternatively, making a Web site make sense can sometimes require complex and time-consuming efforts, like reworking all of a site's naming conventions and IA to reflect the user’s preferences over an organizations internal structure.

Like the author Steve Krug says, don’t make me think! The minute you have to make someone stop and question their decision may be the minute that you lose them.

A few of my favourite resources for keeping things obvious

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