Podcast notes: Mouseovers in navigation

UIE podcast (24 min) with Jared Spool on the sense of using flyout, dropdown or pop-up elements in navigation.

Conclusion (based on tests): the use of interactive techniques for navigation is generally not a good idea.

The main reason why flyouts (and dropdowns and pop-ups) are used, is to reduce the amount of screen space, often because it is thought that the space above the fold should be devoted as much as possible to content only.

Making navigation take up less space can be a good thing, but it depends on the type of page and the user’s point of view. It makes sense to have a content page focus heavily on the content, but on the other hand you also need to get to that page.

Trigger words

So, when looking for the right content, the user will want strong clues. And that’s when flyouts can create problems, because people typically first scan a page for trigger words. Then they click the one that seems most appropriate.

The problem is that scanning for trigger words mostly happens before moving the mouse to click. If trigger words are hidden in flyouts (especially when they have vague labels, like “Products” or “Solutions”), the user will not have all the necessary information to make his evaluation. If hidden options suddenly appear, the user needs to rethink his strategy.

Often there are no (clear) visual clues to indicate the presence of flyouts neither. More experience users are perhaps a little more likely to search for mouseovers, but research shows this still rarely happens with navigational elements.

Comparing options

A second problem is that hidden trigger words prevent a user from comparing his options — an essential part of the decision making process. At any time, he can, for example, only see 5 trigger words, of perhaps 25 in total.

A user needs to see all choices to compare or eliminate. When choices are hidden, the user is forced to remember, which is a cognitive capability that shouldn’t be part of the navigation process.

Level of navigation present

Not every page has to include global navigation. “There is simply no evidence to support that.” People often go back to the homepage, but rarely go to different pages from different sections. The level of navigation that should be present (proportion navigation versus content) on a Web page should depend on the type of page.

There are three kinds of pages:

  1. Homepage: (nearly) navigation only and all links should be visible (you don’t want flyouts)
  2. Gallery pages: only enough content to allow the user to choose which content page he wants to visit
  3. Content pages: content, only navigation relevant to the context

Having only relevant navigation on content pages (no global navigation) shouldn’t be a problem, because people generally don’t mind if the page layout changes — which is often the reason why designers decide to use flyouts. People also don’t mind to have lots of links. People even love sites with lots of links (ex. www.nytimes.com, www.staples.com, www.analog.com)

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