Navigating User Interfaces: It’s Just Like How You Get to Your Hotel Room

If you want users to find the content/functionality in your website, then your user interface will have to guide users to the content they want. To do that effectively, you need to understand how people find their way to anywhere — and your last experience with checking into a hotel will tell you everything you need to know.

HotelFloorplanOne of the topics we cover in Learning Tree’s user experience design course is building a navigation system for your application or website. But designing an effective navigation system is only possible if you understand how people find their way from one place to another. Of course, finding your way around is something you do all the time, so you can use your own experience as a guide to how a navigation system has to work.

For example, think about the last time you checked into a hotel. It was late, you were tired and all you wanted to do was get to the bed in your room. You went to the front desk where the desk clerk handed you a key to room  224. As you were handed the key, the clerk probably said three things:

  • While pointing out your room number: “Your room is on the second floor”
  • After you got your key: “Have a nice stay.”
  • And one more thing: What was the last thing the clerk said to you?

If you said that the last thing the desk clerk said was “The elevators are on the left” then you’ve got a great memory (and you’re also probably spending too much time on the road…but that’s a different problem).

How People Really Find Their Way Around

Notice all the things that the clerk didn’t say to you: That you were in the hotel lobby, that you needed to use the elevator, what direction to turn when you get out of the elevator, and how to get to the bed after you finally got to your room. In fact, you may not even have been told what floor you’re on: Some clerks just point to the room number on the card and say “That’s your room.”

I’ll bet that not being given the full route to your room probably didn’t bother you. The reason you weren’t bothered is because, as soon as you step out of the elevator, you expect to see a wall sign that tells you which rooms are to the left and right of the elevator. Ideally, you’ll see that sign as soon as the elevator doors open.

I’ll also bet that, after determining the right direction to your room, that you didn’t walk straight down the hall with your eyes fixed straight ahead (even if you knew that your room was well down the hallway). I bet that, in fact, you glanced at the room numbers on the doors that you passed to confirm that you were going the right way.

When you got to your room (identified by the room number sign) you used your key to open the door — and if the door didn’t open, you checked the room number again to make sure you were at the right room. Finally, you got the door open and looked down the hallway in the room’s to see your final destination: Your bed. At that point, you heaved a mental sigh of relief.

The “Wayfinding” Process

What you had just engaged in is called “wayfinding.” And that process you went through to get to your room reflects the standard wayfinding process that all human beings seem to use. That process has four steps that you repeat as you go from one place to another on your way to your final destination:

  1. You orient yourself: Where you are and where you’re going
  2. You choose a route
  3. You navigate to the “next stop” on the route
  4. You confirm that you’re getting closer to the “next stop” after that

What you don’t do is plan out your whole route in detail. At any time you’re only interested in two things:

  • The general route from wherever you are to wherever you want to go
  • The details for the route to your “next stop”

That’s why the desk clerk only gave you the information about how to get to the elevator – desk clerks have learned that if they provide you with more detailed information about later steps, you’ll just ignore it. The desk clerks also expect you to know things: what an elevator is, why you need it, and so on (some clerks even expect that, based on the room number, you can figure out what floor your room is on).

  1. When going to your room, those steps played out like this:
  2. Orientation: You knew you were at the front desk and the room was somewhere above you
  3. Choose a route: You accepted the route recommended by the clerk at the front desk (take the elevator and then walk to your room)
  4. Navigated to the “next stop:” You got to the elevator
  5. Confirming: Confirmed that the elevator would go to your room’s floor and that you got off the right floor
  6. Orientation: You determined that your room lay to your left as you left the elevator
  7. Choose a route: You picked a route by turning towards your room and walking down the hallway
  8. Confirming: As you followed the route, you confirmed that the room numbers were getting closer to your room’s number
  9. And so on, until you got to your bed

This is the process that your UI needs to support when helping your users find their way to what they want. Supporting that process is demonstrated by a place that’s probably far more complicated than any site you’ll ever build: The Disney World amusement park. I’ll talk about that in my next post.

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