Graspability in your Local Village

This is something you agree with, but don’t know.

Don’t believe me? I’ll betcha. Keep reading.

See, there’s a lot to think about in web design nowadays, and if you’re a self-employed freelancer, or otherwise being forced to fill many hats in the development process—or all of them—then you need to be an expert at all of it. One of the things you need to know about, but might not want to get your doctorate in, is usability, essentially the art and science of making a website… well, usable. Humans use websites. Usability is lubricating that process.

I’m not going to give you a complex array of concepts, rules, or guidelines for you to wield while you chase the infinite horizon of ultimate usability. There are better sources on the topic, and I’m surely no expert. But what I can give you is a single, self-contained precept which can form the foundation for your entire website’s architecture and visible interface—and lend it the holy grail of public appeal, a feel which is comfortable to the user.

No, Wait—Let’s Do an Analogy

You’re a traveler. You’ve just walked into a village.

(If you’re a gamer, you can envision this as part of a nice RPG, say; if you’re actually an itinerant wanderer, even better. If neither is the case, use your imagination.)

This village is probably similar to most of them, and you’ve certainly seen a few in your time. Odds are that it’s got a town store, some homes, a post office, maybe a bar or two. You’ve never been here before, though, so it’s a little alien, even granting that you’re reasonably sure it’s about the same as the ones you’ve seen so many times. You don’t know, and it’s not exactly the same, anyway—there are fewer houses than the last town, the store is at the north end rather than near the center, the streets are arranged differently.

You might be here just for a few minutes: a stopover to use the bathroom or to mail a letter. Or maybe you expect to see this place again, or maybe you’re planning to stay. Whatever the case, you’ll need to get a grasp of how the village works, how it’s laid out and what’s what, before you can do anything—sure, if you’re just dropping in, you might be able to luck out by guessing where to find what you need and how to get it, but that’s chancy, and frankly, even then, you’d be more comfortable if you understood the place. That’s the difference between your village and this one, after all; you don’t know this place like you know home.

Say what?

This is the essence of a user’s first encounter with a new website. What they’re there for isn’t too important, nor is how they arrived, and actually getting what they need is something else again. But the experience of stepping through the gates and meandering around is one that will last the user not only until he leaves, but after, when he decides whether or not to come back.

You see, it’s not just about ease. You can guess what the user will want, and make it terribly easy for him to get it, so he can proverbially trot through the gate, toss his letter into a waiting mailbox, and head right back out. But comfort is another matter entirely, and the building block of comfort is a two-headed function: Familiarity and “graspability.”

Familiarity is convention, and you probably know it well; it’s following guidelines that let the user say, “Hey, I bet what I want is over there, because it often is on similar sites.” But graspability is a different beast (and not actually a word, sadly). It’s the user’s ability to look at the site, turn it over a few times in his head, and say, “Okay, I get it.”

That’s tied to familiarity for obvious reasons, but it goes beyond that. Let’s return to our traveler. Imagine that the village is tiny, only two houses in the middle of a clearing—and imagine that you, the traveler, are hovering in the air high above it. You can not only see the two buildings and know what they’re about, you can see that they are the entirety of the village; you can look down and not only build a mental model, but know that your model comprises everything below you, because you can literally see every corner of the village and everything in between.

You have “grasped” what this village is about, and now it’s a piece of cake. Not only will you easily find what you want, but you will feel comfortable, because you have eliminated the unknown; in a sense, you mentally “own” it.

This is what you want to achieve with your website, and if it’s as small as the two-building village, it’s probably easy; after all, a site with only one page is child’s play. But we rarely have that luxury, so we need to seek to maintain graspability with a site that may be very large and very complex.

Here are a few tools for just that.

The map

Some of you may be shuddering at the idea of a “site map,” which many designers find antiquated. In our analogy, it’s the equivalent of a city map on a pedestal just inside the gate; in reality, of course, it’s often a mostly-useless eyesore that nobody ever finds. But there are other kinds of “mapping,” subtler ones.

On sites of small to medium size, I like to try and pursue a certain ideal: at any location on the site, no matter where the user is, he can get to anywhere else. That means that your navigation has to be both 100% comprehensive and 100% pervasive; that means that if the user is reading about your corporate mission statement, he can get to a description of your LA office in one click—because that description is always in the navigation, and the navigation is always with the user. Obviously, this is fairly impossible with more than a minimal amount of content, but it illustrates the point.

The point isn’t that you can easily get from A to B. The point is that when the user can look at the navigation bar and know that he’s looking at everything there is, he feels in control. The unknown is eliminated. If all else fails, he may end up clicking through every one of those links, but he knows that he’ll eventually find the page he wants if he does, because there aren’t any dark corners. It’s not a labyrinth; it’s just a big room with lots of doors.

On more complex sites, you can keep chasing this ideal by ensuring centralization of your nav. Rather than linking to every single page, your links will lead to sections, which will yield deeper links, and so on. But the coherence of your nav system is upheld because it remains the central, immobile pillar of structure. This also implies depth: Because that backbone runs throughout the entire site, no matter where the user enters, he will be on firm footing. Rather than hoping that he’ll come in the front gate and follow the lighted path, you’ve created a rock-solid artery that he can enter anywhere and exit where he chooses.

What don’t you do? You don’t put some nav here… and some links up here to different stuff… and put a box with “What’s New!” over here… and if you want to find this other thing, you’ll have to search… but you can only get over there from the front page anyway…

There’s nothing more irritating than loading a site and having to decide which of three “navigation systems” to use. Don’t put half of your links on the side and half along the top, no matter what logic you think you’re using, because I don’t understand your logic, and I also don’t care.

Turnip identification

I am a firm believer that every site on the internet (and perhaps there are exceptions, but your site isn’t one) should feature, prominently and immediately, some kind of explanation, identification, or proverbial “About” page. This stems from the classic author-reader split: You may be writing about something that requires a Ph.D to understand, but the guy who just loaded your site off a search engine doesn’t even know what’s going on. That doesn’t mean he won’t get your content or like it, that means he doesn’t know what your site is, and you should make it your business to tell him posthaste. Far too often do you enter an unfamiliar site and spend five minutes hunting down a description of what actually is and what it’s for—or worse, trying to reconstruct it yourself. Give as many of the five W’s as you can, but at the very least give “who” (the creator) and “what” (what the site is, and what it’s for).

Again, this links back to graspability. It’s well and good to find your way around the village, but before anything else can happen intelligently, you need to know that the thing in front of you is actually a village, and not a turnip.

A confession

I’ve made my point and introduced to you the conceptual tool of graspability. Now I have to come clean: That concept is, at its core, an ideal. Like I said, it’s a sometimes wholly achievable ideal, if circumstances permit—on a small site, one with no surprises and basically consistent content, you can fulfill it perfectly. But in the real world, where nothing is ever so neat, you may find it much harder.

But it’s always a worthwhile goal, and if you at least keep it in mind, you’ll always be turning out a site that’s better than the alternative.