Helping Your Users Find Your Site’s Content

If your users can’t find the content they want on your website, then it really doesn’t matter if you actually have that content. Here’s what you can learn from the craft of “wayfinding” about helping users find what they want.


Architecture may not seem to have much to do with building user interfaces for a website…but there’s some important tips you can take away from a part of an architect’s toolkit: wayfinding. Wayfinding is the craft of finding your way from wherever you are to wherever you want to go. Architects have to construct their buildings to support wayfinding so that people who’ve never been in the building before can get to where they want to go. As you know from your own experience, architects often fail. But, more often than not, you do get to where you want to — and it’s worth understanding how you’re able do that and how architects support you.

LobbyFor instance, you go to a concert at a theatre you’ve never been to before. You walk into the lobby and see something like the picture to the left. Even though there are no visible directional signs (or any signs at all), I bet that you can instantly spot the doors you need to go through if your seats are on the first floor. If you need to hit the washrooms before you go in, I bet that you can spot the washrooms, also. Perhaps you need to pick up your tickets: You look to the left and to the right in order to find the ticket office. If your seats are on the second floor, I bet that you also know where the stairs are.

The reason you can find all of those things is because the architect who designed this lobby took advantage of the principles of wayfinding (the craft of helping people find their way around). We take it for granted, for example, that paired doors that admit a single person (and without windows) are the men’s and woman’s washrooms. We assume that the ticket booth is on the left or right side of the lobby (and not outside on the street or in a separate building or upstairs or…).

And think about how you spotted the stairs to the second floor. The architect didn’t have to make the wall that conceals the stairs slope upward, mimicking the slope of the stairs. Instead, the architect could have created a wall that went straight up from the first floor to the second (it might even have been cheaper to build the wall that way). But you know that a sloped wall like the one in the picture signals that there’s a staircase behind it…and so did the architect who designed that wall.

The Universal

You want to leverage the same kind of wayfinding knowledge as you create your user interfaces. This means that you’re keenly interested in what web-based navigation conventions your users know and how you can exploit them.

For example, there are two conventions that are probably true of every web user (at least in North America and Western Europe) that you would violate at your peril. If, for example, you put your menus anywhere except across the top of the page or down the left hand side of the page then I assume you’re intentionally creating a site that users will find hard to navigate. The same is true of your site’s search box, if you put it anywhere except in the upper right hand corner of the page (or dead center in a page dedicated to searching) you’re just trying to make it difficult for users to search your site.

Unfortunately, outside of those two conventions, there’s not much that you can assume is universally true. Even the concept of “being lost” isn’t a constant. In the article for Architectural Psychology called “Direction Finding in Large Buildings,” Gordon Best described how his team followed people looking for offices in Manchester Town Hall (a huge complex). Some people wandered for 30 minutes before finding the office they were looking for…but, when asked, said they never “felt lost”; other visitors seemed to go straight to the office they wanted…but when they were asked, still felt lost. As we discuss in Learning Tree’s User Experience design course every part of user experience design (including wayfinding and navigation) is always personal and is always driven by the personas that will be using your site.

The Personal

I had this brought home to me recently when I presented at the EdUI conference. I sat in on a session given by Emily King gave on the redesign of the College of Southern Nevada’s library website. Emily pointed out that they had users, primarily in the first year of university, who had never before checked a book out of a library (you could tell because they would ask how much each book was going to cost them). With users like this, it would have been foolish for the college to build a navigation system around the conventions common to libraries (for example, card catalogs or Dewey decimal system categories). On the other hand, a navigation system organized like or organized around the classes students are taking might take advantage of conventions those students would know.

So, as you build out your navigation system you must always ask two questions: “What do our personas need to know in order to find their way?” and “Do our personas know that?”

But you should recognize that you don’t have (and can’t) design for everybody. There may be somebody who surfs to the College of Southern Nevada library’s website who has never used a library before, hasn’t attended any classes yet, and hasn’t ever used That person may also be doing something complicated (“I’m looking for the first scholarly review of the last book in the Fafhrd the Gray Mouser series”). That person is sufficiently rare that you shouldn’t bend your whole design to support that single user. However, you should give that person a phone number they can call to get some help.

Exploiting the Wayfinding Process

While the components of your navigation system will have to be driven by your personas, the wayfinding process does seem to be constant across all users. For example, for all users, wayfinding begins with what psychologists call “arousal”: engaging the user by piquing their interest.

To “arouse” users, they have to be able to spot your navigation system. Putting it in the right place is a good first step but you must do two other things. First, your navigation system should be clearly distinguishable from your site’s content (a menu system that blends into the site might as well not exist). Second, your navigation should look like something that your users will recognize as a “navigation system.” A look at some of the design pattern sites will give you direction on how to achieve that.

The third step in arousing interest in your users is get users to want to use your navigation system. This means that your site’s organization has to make sense to your users, that the terms used in your navigation system have to come from your users’ vocabulary, and your site’s content has to have obvious value for your users (a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere).

If you do all of these things (build on conventions your users know and  “arouse” them) you’ll have a great start on helping your users find what they want. There’s more to do, of course, and I’ll talk about those in some upcoming columns.

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