19 Mar 2005
I’ve been fascinated by interactive menu systems right from when I first used a computer (yeah, I was a really geeky teenager), and over the years have found that whatever the medium, menu navigation raises the same issues.
When browsing through a hierarchical system we all tend to select things that look promising, and if that doesn’t lead to what we’re after we either backtrack (using a dedicated button or on-screen link) to try a different branch or start again from the top. Whether you’re creating a DVD menu, game, interactive TV system, Flash tutorial, touch-screen kiosk, or simple web site, if you emphasise this minimal navigation, and only add essential extra features, then users will get around OK.
The key thing is that some people will visualise themselves roaming a tree structure, but to those not comfortable with thinking in terms of hierarchies it’s just forward/backward movement.
The Nokia 5110, released in the late 90s, was never a beautiful piece of industrial design but it popularised replaceable covers and was easy to use (complete technophobes got to grips with it in a way seldom seen since). One button selected a forward path, another backtracked; it was the embodiment of minimal navigation and I bored people stupid by using it as an example for years afterwards. I suppose the iPod is a modern equivalent which has even made browsing faceted data easy.
The web’s an amazing mixture of rigid hierarchy and anarchic hypertext (wikis show hypertext can work without hierarchy), but for certain types of site (such as interactive learning resources for kids, or information for novice web users) starting with minimal hierarchical navigation and adding few cross-links works really well.
This is all staggeringly obvious stuff barely worth stating, right? Yet phone manufacturers have neglected simplicity as feature lists have ballooned and buttons sprouted (even the gadget fanatics I know long for at least a partial return to minimal navigation). Many web sites are cluttered or disorganised. Loads of DVD menus are confusing. The clunky Freeview interactive TV system was probably designed by chimps (ones rejected by zoos and animal testing labs for being way too stupid).
(The phone buttons issue was recently tackled by Russell Beattie.)