If you are like me, at some point in your life you have awoken in the middle of the night, found yourself in an unfamiliar setting and thought, “Oh no! Where the hell am I?!”. For me, what followed was a moment of sheer panic as my brain tried to piece together the clues of my surroundings. My heart raced, which sent a flood of adrenaline and warm, oxygen-rich blood to lubricate my sticky neurons. Moments later, I was able to solve the puzzle. “Ohhhh, I am [insert current location ]”. Next, I either cozied-up and went back to sleep or very quietly grabbed my pants, snuck out the back door, and ran my shameful ass home.

If only for a moment, having lost my orientation was terrifying. If I don’t know where I am, how can I find the way to where I want to go? The feeling was paralyzing.

Orientation = sense of place.
“I am anchored here. Therefore, I have a good sense for moving to other desired locations”.

Orientation is a basic component of a concept used in architecture called “wayfinding”. In his book The Image of the City, urban planner Kevin Lynch coined the term “wayfinding” to describe his concept of environmental legibility — that is, how we read our environment to help us navigate through spaces like buildings, parks, towns, cities, etc. One of the underlying metaphors of the world wide web is navigation through web-space to websites (places), therefore the wayfinding metaphor is well suited for thinking about web navigation.

There are some basic components to successful architectural wayfinding.

  1. Orientation: I know where I am. I am right here!
  2. Routing and mapping: Where can I go? How can I get there?
  3. Recognition: How will I know when I get there?

The requirements of successful website navigation are very similar to architectural wayfinding. There are some differences, such as in #1 – determining our current orientation. Search engines often drop us deep into web environments without providing context. A simple click of a hyperlink can transport us deep within an entirely foreign web space. A physical space comparison could be drawn to having been blindfolded and dropped in the middle of a corn maze. Now, if that corn maze was wrapped with a clearly design navigation system, including signage that noted “you are here”, you would be able to quickly re-establish your orientation and begin to map your way to your desired location (out!).

Clear, intuitive site navigation is a critical, foundational aspect of any online experience. Without this core necessity, your project will fail. I like to think of navigation as pants. The skill level of a pro football running back means nothing if he is out on the field with no pants. Right?

Often times clever creative work and “brave and daring” design can interfere with this core principle. As the web medium has matured we have seen a turf war emerge between the disciplines of Information Architecture and User Interface Design.  This issue will be addressed in an upcoming Clockwork Blog UX post.

In the meantime, try this: pick a random page on your web site and go there (or send a random link to someone you know). If this was the first page you had ever seen on your site, would you know where you are right now? If you wanted to go somewhere else, would you know how? If the answer to either of those questions is no, you may have a corn maze on your hands.