There are lots of ways to help people navigate a website. My all-time favorite has to be the “tag cloud.”
If you’re not familiar with the tag cloud, it is a navigation tool that has gained prevalence with Web 2.0 and the abundance of user-generated content sites. Many of these sites realize that people are too lazy to categorize their pictures, movies, links, whatever, into a sensible set of categories, so they allow their users to just type any old word in to describe their content. Perfect for today’s ADD crowd. Then, these sites take the most popular words, and throw them in a big, steaming heap, and bump up the font size of the most popular ones, giving you the “tag cloud”. Examples from Flickr and Technorati:
Spend a minute browsing these images. Aren’t they beautiful? They give the user a visual workout, forcing them to scan line by line, looking for the big, important tags that are of interest. They help the user practice basic size-recognition as they try to figure out which word is in a larger font than the next, and they help them build those left-to-right reading reflexes that we all so desperately need to hone.
If there’s one thing we don’t see enough of these days, it’s navigation that really makes people use their head. There are far too many of these “ordered lists” that make it easy to distinguish which items are most important. If you want to do your users a favor, help them hone their visual recognition skills by presenting them with new and different navigation techniques that don’t follow traditional practices. Users love that.
Let’s say you’re Technorati, and you have the choice of showing your users a tagcloud or this:
Most popular topics:
- Religion and Philosophy
- Writing and Poetry
- New and politics
- Romance and Relationships
Now wouldn’t any self-respecting user find this “list” patronizing? “Oh look, this site thinks I’m so simple-minded that I need my lists ordered by importance. Maybe they think I need a way to get back to the homepage from anywhere, too.” Never underestimate your audience’s intelligence or their desire to be challenged.
Let’s take a look at a site that needs a tag cloud: Billboard’s Top 40 Singles. Now, if these guys had any sense or knew what users liked, they’d show their Top 40 like this:
Akon Augustana Baby Boy Da Prince Beyonce Daughtry Diddy Dixie Chicks Fall Out Boy Fat Joe Fergie The Fray Gwen Stefani Gym Class Heroes Hellogoodbye Jim Jones Jon Mayer Jonas Brothers Justin Timberlake Lloyd Ludacris Mims My Chemical Romance Nelly Furtado Nickelback Omarion Paula DeAnda Pretty Ricky Red Hot Chili Peppers The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus Rihanna Robin Thicke T.I. Unk Young Jeezy
Much better. Billboard: this time the design advice is free; next time I charge you for it.
So keep using those tagclouds, guys. After all, they’re cool, they’re trendy, they’re so Web 2.0, and there’s nothing users appreciate more than a website that isn’t afraid to challenge their sense of logic and order!