In my last post I argued that navigation based on classification schemes does not work because readers don’t classify their experiences. But while that is generally true, it is important to note that sometimes readers do classify their experiences, and that when they do, it is important that we base our navigation on those classifications.
For instance, here is a used car site that I think works really well, autocatch.com:
Here, car buyers can select the cars they want to view based on the ways that buyers commonly classify the features of cars that are important to them: year, transmission, price, mileage, body style, exterior color, and whether they are sold by a private seller or a dealer.
This scheme works because the typical car buyer already classifies the cars they are interested in this way. That is, the buyer has typically decided that they are looking, for example, for a sedan with under 100,000 km, with an automatic transmission, and no earlier than a 2008 model. They bring the classification scheme with them to the site, and the site responds by letting them select cars to view that match the criteria they already have in mind.
Other examples include
- movie rental sites that allow you to select movies by genre, star, rating, awards, live vs. animation, etc.
- medical sites like Web MD that allow users to select content based on where they hurt
Again, these are classifications that the user brings with them to the site. To assume that similar designs will work equally well if they were based on classification schemas that the author made up out of whole cloth, or even one that represents some real truth about the product internals, would be a serious mistake. It is not the particular of the design that make them successful, but the fact that the particular of the design correspond to the particulars of the user’s natural classification scheme.
One thing that is notable about these classification schemas is that many of them are not hierarchical, but consist of multiple independent variables. In Autocatch, the user can choose to narrow down their selection based on any criteria that interest them, and can enter those criteria in any order they feel like. Autocatch would be much less usable if the criteria were arranged hierarchically:
year transmission price mileage body style exterior color private seller or a dealer
With that kind of organization, a buyer who wanted to see all convertibles regardless of year, transmission, price, or mileage would have to look in hundred of different places to see all the cars they were interested in. Play with the levels of the hierarchy however you like, you will still create a situation in which many buyers will have to look in many places to find what they are looking for.
Where the subject matter itself is hierarchically organized, a hierarchy works. Autocatch’s home screen presents a hierarchical selection of locations for the user to choose from.
This works for two reasons: locations have a natural hierarchy (Ottawa is physically inside of Ontario), and used car buyers have a natural interest in the location of used cars. There are towns named Windsor and Woodstock in more than one province, but no one wants to look for used cars only in Windsor, Ontario and Windsor, Nova Scotia. The hierarchy works because it is natural, familiar, and useful. Autocatch uses hierarchy where hierarchy works, and independent variables where independent variables work.
WebMD is another example of a natural, familiar, and useful hierarchical approach, with their symptom checker:
This works because it is the digital equivalent of a doctor asking a patient to point to where it hurts. (The fact that the selection is graphical is really important here, because it takes potentially unfamiliar terminology out of the mix). A similar selection mechanism using a classification that was not natural or familiar to the user would not work. The user would be stumped by the first question.
Many examples of natural, familiar, useful classification schemes come from commercial sites. If anyone knows of good examples from tech comm sites, I’d be very grateful to hear about them. But commercial sites have a lot to teach us, because they live under a strict Darwinian selection process. Commercial sites show us which models work for customers because commercial sites that don’t work for customers quickly go out of business and disappear. (Tech comm’s unfortunate lack of exposure to the Darwinian forces of the market place is something I have commented on before.)
There is, I believe, just as much of a natural imperative in cases where the user does classify their experience as in those where they do not. If you attempt to impose a classification scheme on content where the user does not classify their experience, it is doomed to failure. But if the user does classify their experience in a particular field, it is pretty much essential that you provide navigation based on that classification scheme, and you are almost certainly doomed to failure if you don’t. (Imagine a used car site that did not organize cars by year, transmission, price, mileage, body style, exterior color, etc. How successful would it be?)
Part of the problem for tech writers in organizing content according to the classification schemas that users bring to the content, however, is that so many of those schemas consist not of a hierarchy but of multiple independent variables.
You can create a hierarchically organized content set with desktop authoring tools and present them as static web pages. But to enable the user to navigate according to multiple independent variables requires a real database on the back end. A CMS stuffed with content fragments is not going to cut it for this purpose. You need a genuine content database that can be reliably and swiftly queried at runtime in response to user inputs. That is not something that tech comm teams have a lot of experience designing and building. If you have built anything like this for your content, I would love to hear about it.