Pete LePage

Thoughts on web development, life, and photography.

Is It Time To Rethink Web Navigation?

While on my way into work this morning, I read a post on SixRevisions asking the question “Is It Time To Rethink Website Navigation?” For a very long time, navigation on websites has been stagnant, it’s either a navbar across the top, or maybe down the side. Sometimes, with a little JavaScript, it’s interactive, but it almost always contains the same types of link. The logo almost always takes you “home”, there’s an about link, a site index link, contact us, well, you know what I’m talking about. Oh, and don’t forget about the standard footer at the bottom of most sites.

We’ve certainly seen a number of web sites start to push the boundaries of traditional navigation and they call out a couple like The Wishes Greenhouse at Clair et Net or how other sites use responsive web design to provide a better experience depending on the capabilities of the device you’re on.

Web Pages & Sites vs. Web Applications #

This worked well when the web was only about sites and pages - navigating from one page to another and consuming content. But as we see more and more web applications come online, the traditional navigation model doesn’t work any more.

I think the author missed a great opportunity though to talk about the difference in navigation between web applications and web sites - two very different models. In a web site, navigation provides a connection from one page to another and a way to move around from one piece of content to another. Web application navigation is different, instead of moving between pages, it’s more about providing the user with an ability to control and interact with content. Changing the paradigm away from navigation towards control is one of the core components that separate websites and pages from applications.

Let’s take a quick look at Music by Google. Notice there isn’t a nav bar across the top, or on the sides, and there isn’t a footer either? Instead along the right side, there are a number of links that change my view. At the bottom, where the footer normally would be are the player controls (back, play, forward, volume, etc). Instead of providing links to help me get somewhere - the links on the page help me accomplish something, or change the view that I have (maybe to a different playlist, artist or genre).

Being More App-y #

So what makes a web application app-y? Certainly the navigation and controls do. When I look at a web application and how the designers and developers have laid out the navigation, I ask myself how this app might be different if it were a client or mobile application. When was the last time you saw the privacy policy, terms of service or copyright notice not in an about screen on a desktop app, or tucked away under settings in a mobile application? Imagine if that were at the bottom of iTunes and took up the bottom 10%! And we see this all the time in web applications. In fact, GMail is one of my favorite offenders here. Why not tuck that away under settings in top right?

Step Out Of The Box #

It will take some time for this paradigm to change, but it’s an important one. Today we still think in the web site and web page “box” too often when creating web applications. Let’s get out of that box, and make web applications feel more like applications and less like web pages.