Where Am I? Navigation and Interface
Where Am I? Navigation and Interface
What Color Is Your Concept?
Notice that we have not said a word about graphic design, typography, or technology. We are simply examining a prototype whose purpose is to immediately engage readers in the site's drama and promise. The site achieves this by plunging the reader into content (but not too much content) and by supporting that content with a quickly comprehensible menu structure, as well as a linear method of reading on (More Stories).
This simple site architecture, with its emphasis on human interest, provides an immediate way for addicts to identify with an anonymous speaker and thus begin to admit that they suffer from the same problem. It helps the loved ones of addicts to recognize their husbands and wives as addicts and start to understand why Harry or Sally is "that way." The site does not preach, nor does it overwhelm visitors with too much initial detail. Its careful structure engages the minds of a specific audience and allows them to get whatever level of support they need.
Every site should be this effective, whether it offers help for personal problems or half-price airfare. Every site should immediately engage its intended audience with compelling content that invites exploration. A Web designer's first job is to find the heart of the matter: the concept. His or her second job is to ensure that readers understand it too. That is the overall purpose of architecture and navigation.
Business as (Cruel and) Usual
How would ineffective Web designers and clients approach the Narcotics Anonymous project? It wouldn't be by providing immediately engaging content nor by offering a streamlined menu with both global and linear functionality. They would likely present a standard menu bar with five to ten choices, a tedious welcome message, stock photos of smiling families implicitly representing addicts in recovery (at least, in the designer's mind), and overtly commercial tie-ins to an online retailer selling self-help books.
The interior of the site might offer similar content to that contained in our imaginary prototype, but the content would be buried several layers down in the site's hierarchy where only the most dedicated would stand a chance of finding it. Instead of capturing and presenting the essence of the client's message, the site would merely mimic the boring "professional" surface appearance of thousands of other sites. Instead of potentially saving lives, the site would merely be one more roadblock in an addict's troubled life.
How would cutting-edge Web shops approach the project? Possibly by creating a 250K introductory Flash movie featuring a spinning hypodermic needle. The needle might morph into a rotating navigational device. Or it might fill with blood that drips to form letters spelling out some horrific statistic on the mortality rate of drug addicts. Such a site might win awards in a graphic design showcase, but it would not help a soul.
In all probability, the Narcotics Anonymous organization would never commission a site like any of these, nor would we expect many drug addicts to go online in search of help. We've chosen this example because it quickly dramatizes the difference between effective and ineffective Web design. In the case of Narcotics Anonymous, it could mean the difference between life and death. But this is equally true for any business or organization that requires an online identity-except that what's at stake is not the reader's life, but the survival of the business itself. Sites with strong concepts and solid, intuitive architecture will live. Sites lacking those things die. Web design is communication. It says specific things to specific people. It does this by offering meaningful content in the context of focused digital architecture. Navigation and interface are the doors to that architecture.
In a consumer society, communication is a function of time. Traditional designers and art directors are trained in the art of instant communication. They understand that consumers make split- second decisions based on emotional responses to visual information. Which toothpaste gets tossed into the shopping cart? A stripe of color may make one dentifrice appear more clinically effective than its competitor. Which paperback is bought in the airport bookstore? Color and typography make one book leap off the shelves while another is ignored. Which of a thousand billboard messages is remembered? The one with the smart line of copy and complementary image lingers in the mind.
When traditional designers and art directors take their talent to the Web, their consummate understanding of the power of the image would seem to position them as the ideal architects of the sites they design. After all, who knows better how to focus and deliver the appropriate message before the consumer has time to click the browser's Back button? In good shops, skilled Web designers are empowered to do what they do best, but this is not always the case. Some shops constrict the designer's abilities by forcing him or her into a more limited role.
Created: April 5, 2001
Revised: April 5, 2001