When designing an application today one of the key pieces, which takes some thought, is the navigation of the application. There are so many choices available today to allow users to navigate your application. So how do you choose? Some companies actually have user interface experts/developers whose job it is to help you make the application more appealing to the user. In past jobs I have had this option available. Sometimes what they told me made sense and sometimes I walked away from meeting with them wondering why they were still employed for the company. If I didn’t have the user interface developer option available, I’d try to think back to my college days (ten years ago next year, wow) to my one user interface class.   I remember the professor always saying to think about your target audience. So what does that mean?  Well, I always took it to mean think to about the current applications your target audience uses and the navigation of those applications when designing new applications for them. 

  • Do they spend a lot of time in Microsoft Office applications? What version of Office? It has changed over the last several years from the basic toolbar to the ribbon we have today.  
  • Do they use content management systems such as Microsoft SharePoint or Microsoft CRM?
  • Do they use smart phones and what applications are they using on them?
  • Do they spend time navigating websites? If so, which sites do they use, as there is a wide range of website navigation options available?

Talk with the user, if you can, about what they use daily, and don’t forget to ask what they like and dislike in the applications they use.  Just because they use them doesn’t mean they actually like them or their design; it could just be what they are told they have to use.

Next, think about what the purpose of the new application is that you are developing.  While thinking about this, you might also think about the flow of the application if it has one.  Does the user launch the application and do the same five things every time in a specific order?  If they do, why not make the navigation aid them in doing those five things (meaning put them in the order that they do the actions)?  In the past, I have developed applications that had a flow and it went:

  1. The user launched the application
  2. Selected an option
  3. Provided me a path for something to work on and selected next
  4. Gave me some details about what they wanted to do and selected next
  5. Selected some options of things I could do for them

The above flow would continue where they would give me something, select next and repeat until I had gathered all the pieces I needed to execute the actions the application was designed to do.  In the end I made the application have a wizard/installer type feel to it because it made sense.  The navigation was the simple Next, Back, and Cancel buttons, but to help them know where they were in the process I also put a timeline across the top of the application showing where they had been and where they were going next in the application.

In a current project, I have users who spend all day in the newer Office applications with the ribbon and they really like that navigation.  However in the application I am developing for them the ribbon didn’t make sense as the application was mostly a launch platform for several small applications that we combined to run through one interface. So I did a quick mockup using a side navigation bar and showed it to them, and they loved it.  It was simple to understand, and I had put some of the items in the specific order in which they had to run. I then did another mock up where instead of the side bar, I used the simple toolbar across the top and showed that to them.  They liked that just as well, but not as much as the side navigation bar. So I modified one of the mockups and put both the side bar navigation and the toolbar, and they liked that the best because it gave them the choice.

In closing, remember when designing an application to make sure you plan to spend some time thinking of how the user will navigate the application. In that planning make sure you evaluate what the user knows and likes about current applications they use.  Thinking about what the application’s function will be will aid you in designing a solid navigation for the application. Lastly, if you can, do a couple mockups of some different navigation options and show them to the users.  If you can’t show them to the user, at least it might help you think about whether it’s the right navigation or not (sometimes seeing is understanding). Remember to get the navigation right and make it easy to use, and the user will be self-sufficient; get it wrong and they will be bugging you to show them where stuff is, or you’ll have to write lengthy documentation to explain where things are. No developer ever wants to write documentation.

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