The Big O: IA Lessons from Orienteering

Orienteering is a sport where competitors use a map pre-marked with a series of control markers to navigate through a terrain (usually a park). Competitive orienteers run between control markers, using a combination of map-reading techniques and navigation strategies to find the quickest route.

Backstory
Last June I found myself in Calgary, Alberta, on business. I had a few hours to spare in the morning, so I grabbed the map of Nose Hill Park I’d ordered from the local orienteering club, and went out to practice my orienteering. From the parking lot, I started to run up the large hill to the first control marker, carefully checking my map and route along the way.

“Designing effective catching features is similar to providing a strong information scent. Within ten minutes I was lost. The terrain I was running across didn’t resemble the terrain described on the map. What should have been open land was actually a small forest. A dozen unmarked paths crisscrossed through the trees. While searching for that first control, I had two thoughts. First, I was feeling the same kind of frustration I’d seen from people in user testing (“It should be here… why isn’t it here?”). Second, if orienteering isn’t that different from web navigation, then maybe it can inform the practice of information architecture.

John Rhodes used a real-world navigation metaphor to explain information architecture in his WebWord article “Information Architecture for the Rest of Us.” The article goes a step further by applying orienteering strategies and terms to IA and navigation design. Several orienteering strategies – including map simplification and contact, navigating by checkpoints, rough and precise map reading, and using attack points to find the goal – have useful IA parallels.

Simplification and rough map reading
An orienteering map has too much detail to absorb quickly, and most of it is extraneous to the orienteer’s goal of finding the shortest path from their location to the next control. A good orienteer maintains “map contact” by checking her map once every five to ten seconds. Simplification – the practice of ignoring unnecessary map details and focusing on important ones – is an important skill in orienteering.

This kind of rough map reading is analogous to scanning a web page for information (see Chapter 2, page 22 in Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me Think). Both the orienteer and the user know their goal isn’t immediately in front of them, so they focus only on details that will bring them closer to their goal.

Checkpoints and catching features
Checkpoints and catching features are easily-recognized features of the terrain, such as a hill or a fork in a path. Just as the name suggests, orienteers use them as cues to “catch” themselves, or to stop, check the map and adjust their route. Catching features also allow the orienteer to focus on only one or two details on the map, and to create ad hoc, but effective, navigation rules that allow for speedy movement. For example, “Follow the edge of the forest for one kilometer until I reach the boulder.”

Designing checkpoints and catching features
Designing effective catching features is similar to providing a strong information scent. Effective labels and logical groupings of content can help users create those ad hoc navigation rules that let them move quickly to the area of the site they want. Images help reduce the ambiguity of labels. You want to make the features of the terrain as clear and unambiguous as possible, allowing your users to move rapidly to their goal.

Precision map reading and attack points
In usability testing, subjects often reach a point where they are confident they can complete a task – such as filling in a form, making a purchase or retrieving a particular piece of information. Many of them get to a point where they can say, “Okay, I know I can do that from here.” In orienteering terms, they have reached an attack point.

As experienced orienteers move toward a control marker, they shift from rough map reading to precision map reading. Precision map reading involves moving slowly, paying more attention to the map details, and scanning the terrain for the control. Typically, when approaching a control, the orienteer will pick a catching feature to use as an attack point. Arrival at the attack point is where the precision map reading begins.

Creating attack points
An attack point is where a user starts to work at reaching their goal, such as purchasing a product or reading an article. When the goal is simple, such as reading today’s headlines, the homepage often serves as the attack point. With a more complicated goal, like purchasing a PDA, several attack points may be offered based on users’ goals.

Attack points can be links, pictures or any other combination of page elements that facilitate the shift between rough and precise reading. Amazon, AOL and AT&T use the search box as an attack point by using keywords to take users directly to a page, or by presenting a filtered set of best-bet search results.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Amazon vs. Buy.com
To put the orienteering analogy to the test, let’s compare Amazon and Buy.com and look at how we might “attack” our goal of purchasing a PDA.

Figure 1 shows the main electronics page for Amazon and Buy.com. In addition to the left-hand menu, Amazon has prominent images and descriptions – these are checkpoints or catching features – for the main electronics categories. Buy.com merely has a menu on the left-hand side, and probably hasn’t included enough catching features for users who want PDAs However, the Buy.com list of featured products on this page is essentially a series of attack points.

Figure 2 compares the main PDA page from each site. Buy.com shows several products, attack points for people who want to purchase those products. Amazon’s page is a hybrid of checkpoints in the upper left, additional navigation for users seeking a particular brand of PDA or operating system, and attack points on the right. Offscreen, Amazon also offers two unconventional attack points – a buying guide and Consumer Reports product reviews. These might help “rough map readers” who are unsure about committing to a purchase or are lost in the section to switch into their precise map reading mode.

It’s also worth noting that in Figure 2 the design of each page changes. Those changes are consistent with what we’d expect from attack points: the product images are larger, there are more details on each product, and on Amazon the left-hand menu disappears.

Conclusion
Analogies between spatial and hypertext navigation tend to break down at some point, and this one is no exception. But up to that point, these analogies can still provide us with a helpful framework for analyzing site structures and designs. My hope is that by borrowing from orienteering’s well-developed navigation strategies, vocabulary and practice, IAs gain another way of thinking about, explaining and solving navigation problems.

(And you should really go out and try it, since it’s a helluva lot of fun, and easy too.)

For more information:
Gene Smith works for the government of Alberta, Canada. He leads the team responsible for the content, IA, design and usability of the main government web site (http://www.gov.ab.ca), and manages a government-wide web site standards process. He occasionally writes on his web site www.atomiq.org. Most Wednesday nights during the summer you can find him orienteering with his local orienteering club.

Posted in Design Principles, Professionalism | 4 Comments »

4 Comments

  • andrew

    April 18, 2002 at 1:14 am

    Nice article! This is the kind of cross-disciplinary thinking that I used to get so excited about three years ago, when it seemed like smart people with varied interests had a real place shaping the web. B&A is an old-skool stronghold in that way.

  • Sarah White

    April 24, 2002 at 11:43 am

    Have you read Erik Jonsson’s book “Inner Navigation” (Scribner, 2002)?

    If you liked this article, you might just love this book by an elderly orienteer.
    [quoting from book jacket] “A lively, engaging account of subconscious mapmaking”.

    Not one mention of website navigation in the book, but a host of interesting thoughts that lead in the same direction Gene Smith has us strolling.

    Enjoy!

  • Gene

    April 26, 2002 at 11:39 am

    There’s an anecdote on the Amazon page for Inner Navigation (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0743222067/qid=1019845804/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/104-1092290-2711927) that reminds me of being in San Francisco last year. For the whole trip I had North and South reversed and even though I knew I was wrong I couldn’t shake my inaccurate mental model.

    Anyway, thanks for the tip Sarah. Looks like an interesting book.

  • Annie Rex

    May 6, 2002 at 9:16 am

    Thanks for this! I sent this piece to my husband, who still doesn’t really know what I do after 7 years of doing the user experience consulting thing. The extended analogy really seems to fit. I’m pretty sure he’ll be able to understand at least this aspect of my work since we’ve been addicted off and on to watching Eco-Challenge and he’s quite fond of trail blazing with his mountain bike. Good stuff, Gene.

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