Gov Agency creates bare-bones web index
October 25, 2001 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Gov Agency creates bare-bones web index Web sites assume that you know a little about what you're looking for. One US Federal agency has created a navigation engine that requires virtually no understanding of anything.

I'm torn. Part of me wants one of these navigation tools for every website I use. Part of me is a little disappointed that sites have to be this least-common-denominator-simple for people to use.

Do you like it? Would you want one for the sites you use? Discuss.
posted by basilwhite (14 comments total)

I'm a little disappointed in the output. I answered "no" to every single question and it still gave me pages...

But I think a "navigation tool" of this nature is really specialized, and while it might work for a web-site that is purely information-providing (such as the website in question), interactive etc. web pages aren't going to get any benefit.

Besides, finding something the right way is half the fun of the internet.
posted by j.edwards at 10:25 AM on October 25, 2001

Everyone beats me on the head that the whole idea of good navigation is something that can get you anywhere in 2 mouseclicks or less... This just reminds me of those electronic telephone hells: Press "one" if you want a balance, Press "two" if you want a manicure, Press "three" if you want pizza...


So, Discussed. Am I excused now?
posted by Perigee at 10:33 AM on October 25, 2001

I don't think sites necessarily have to be "least-common-denominator-simple for people to use", but proper information design -- especially when a site does have to connect to this least-common-denominator -- isn't something your average web designer can really do properly.

This approach seems akin to automated phone answering systems. Is it elegant? Hell no. Could my Mom use it without getting lost or confused? Absolutely. This seems to be the easiest way for the VA to assure that people are getting the information they need.

I agree that this approach isn't for everyone, but I applaud the VA for serving their constituency so well.
posted by xochi at 10:35 AM on October 25, 2001

I'm sort of tempted to try it for my work (community college) - I often find that people ask the same questions over & over by email, when i know that the information is on our site.

I wouldn't do it as the only way to search, but perhaps as a search option - ie: (a) site map, (b) google (they have a education site search thing!), or (c) quiz our system.

one tries not to assume that the users are idiots (so to speak) and yet sometimes they are, if not idiots, then at least not wise in the ways of the web. the more ways you can give to lead people in the right direction, the better.

thanks for the link!
posted by epersonae at 10:50 AM on October 25, 2001

For the love of God, no.

Edward Tuft discusses this type of binary navigation in Visual Explanations, but I've never seen an actual working(?) example. It's incredibly bad. There's no context or overview of the options.

Any marginal benefit for novice users is lost when weighed against the total lack of support for expert users--or even anyone who's been on the site for a couple minutes. It's impossible to get any better since everyone has to march through the same tedious decision tree in tiny irritating steps.

Once you're presented with the list of links, there's no labeling or indication that they're related to your choices. Even if you infer that they are, you have to remember the series of choices that led there if you ever want to find the information again.

There is almost certainly a better way to present this information.
posted by jeffhoward at 10:56 AM on October 25, 2001

it's the Dictator or Sitcom Character approach to information architecture!
posted by badstone at 10:57 AM on October 25, 2001

My lord, that's awful.

Basically, this violates what is the secret, most basic rule of web construction: the rule of triage. Simply put, your audience can be divided into 3 categories.

1. People who never need any help at all.

2. People who will benefit from help, "user-friendly" interfaces, and so on.

3. People who are utterly beyond help, on whom any further attention will be completely wasted. Moreover, time wasted on this group will subtract from efforts that could have been spent more productively on group 2, or on upgrading content in general.

This effort spends way too much attention on group 3. People who would use this dumbed-down path are going to be lost in a fog regardless. They need to either improve their skills and move up to group 2, or consign themselves to a life of having other retrieve items on their behalf.
posted by gimonca at 11:16 AM on October 25, 2001

navigation links and buttons are ALL "yes, i want more info about this subject" buttons if they are Named properly and have some type of logical order to them. Much faster than seeing if an interface is going to offer me the information i want.

what if the question you have never comes up? at least tell the user that they are on question # 40 of 2,345 questions so at least they can hope or despair as appropriate.
posted by th3ph17 at 11:22 AM on October 25, 2001

Bear in mind, this is only one interface to the site. If you have a clearer idea of what you're looking for, you can, of course, just go to the main page.
posted by moss at 11:27 AM on October 25, 2001

This effort spends way too much attention on group 3. People who would use this dumbed-down path are going to be lost in a fog regardless. They need to either improve their skills and move up to group 2, or consign themselves to a life of having other retrieve items on their behalf.

The trouble is that the agency in question, the VA, has an audience that is by nature likely to be older and unfamiliar with the Internet and/or large bureaucracies than the average younger person. So I don't think it's absurd that the VA tried to address the "group 3" people at all. It may not work for everyone, but when your likely audience has a large chunk of "group 3s" you probably need to make the effort.
posted by thescoop at 11:54 AM on October 25, 2001

It would be a serious underestimation of the audience to believe that "older and unfamilar with the internet" automatically lumps you into group three.

Focusing on the third group can be a lot of fun though, as this case study from AskTog illustrates: Maximizing Windows
posted by jeffhoward at 12:13 PM on October 25, 2001

I love AskTog's animated Prairie Dog! And I'm delighted to learn that some software folks test their wares on real people, even on the "web naive."
posted by Carol Anne at 12:42 PM on October 25, 2001

I don't really like the binary web navigation -- but I do think more attention needs to be paid to issues in navigation. I mean, my college's site has HORRIBLE navigation, it's hard for ANYONE to find anything on it (experienced users of the web not having much help since it's so counterintuitive.)
posted by dagnyscott at 4:14 PM on October 25, 2001

Actually, navigation like this is very helpful in what I do, which is internal corporate applications. By asking specific yes or no questions like these, my current project (a remote help-desk system) loads the right form, which can then be processed into the database without a whole lot of human oversight, notification, or error checking.
posted by SpecialK at 9:55 PM on October 25, 2001

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