Computer Human Values

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“This is not a crisis of technology or computing power, but one of imagination, understanding and courage.”Computers and related devices need to be more human

As computers and digital devices increasingly insert themselves into our lives, they do so on an ever increasing social level. No longer are computers merely devices for calculating figures, graphing charts, or even typing correspondence. When producers of the first personal computers initially launched them into the market over 20 years ago, they could think of no better use for them than storing recipes and balancing one’s checkbook. They couldn’t predict how deep computers (and related devices) would seep into our lives.

Computers have enabled cultures and individuals to express themselves in new and unexpected ways, and have enabled businesses to transform how, where, when and even what business they do. However, this rosy outlook has come at a price. Computers have become more frustrating to use. In fact, the more sophisticated the use, the application, the interface and the experience, the more important it is for computers and other digital devices to integrate fluidly into our already-established lives without requiring us to respond to technological needs. Also, the wider-spread these devices, the more socially-agile they need to be in order to be accepted.

Interfaces must:

  • Be more aware of themselves.
  • Be more aware of their surroundings and participants/audiences.
  • Offer more help and guidance when needed, in more natural and understandable ways.
  • Be more autonomous when necessary.
  • Be better able to help build knowledge as opposed to merely processing data.
  • Be more capable of displaying information in richer forms.
  • Be more integrated into a participant’s workflow or information and entertainment processes.
  • Be more integrated with other media.
  • Adapt more automatically to behavior and conditions.

People default to behaviors and expectations of computers in ways consistent with human-to-human contact and relationships.

Ten years ago, when the computer industry was trying to increase sales of personal computers into the consumer space, the barrier wasn’t technological, but social. For the most part, computers just didn’t fit into most people’s lives. This wasn’t because they were lacking features or kilohertz, it was because they didn’t really do much that was important to people. It wasn’t until email became widespread and computers became important to parents in the education of their children that computers started showing up in homes in appreciable numbers. Now, to continue “market penetration,” we’ll need to not just add new capabilities, but build new experiences for computers to provide to people that enhance their lives in natural and comfortable ways.

If you aren’t familiar with Cliff Nass’ and Byron Reeves’ research at Stanford, you should be. They showed (and published in their book Media Equation) that people respond to computers as if they were other people. That is, people default to behaviors and expectations of computers in ways consistent with human-to-human contact and relationships. No one is expecting computers to be truly intelligent (well, except the very young and the very nerdy), but our behaviors betray a human expectation that things should treat us humanely and act with human values as soon as they show the slightest sophistication. And this isn’t true merely of computers, but of all media and almost all technology. We swear at our cars, we’re annoyed at the behavior of our microwave ovens, we’re enraged enough to protest at “corporate” behavior, etc. While on a highly intellectual level we know these things aren’t people, we still treat them as such and expect their behaviors to be consistent with the kind of behavior that, if it doesn’t quite meet with Miss Manner’s standards, at least meets with the standards we set for ourselves and our friends.

We should be creating experiences and not merely “tasks” or isolated moments in front of screens.

Experiences happen through time and space and reflect a context that’s always greater than we realize. Building understanding for our audience and participants necessarily starts with context, yet most of our experiences with computers and devices, including application software, hardware, operating systems, websites, etc. operate as if they’re somehow independent of what’s happening around them. Most people don’t make these distinctions. How many of you know people who thought they were searching the Web or buying something at Netscape five years ago? Most consumers don’t distinguish between MSN, Windows, Internet Explorer, AOL and email, for example. It’s all the same to them because it’s all part of the same experience they’re having. When something fails, the whole collection is at fault. It’s not clear what the specific problem might be because developers have made it notoriously difficult to understand what has truly failed or where to start looking for a solution.

We need to rethink how we approach helping people solve problems when we develop solutions for them. We need to realize that even though our solutions are mostly autonomous, remote, and specific, our audiences are none of these. They exist in a space defined in three spatial dimensions, a time, a context, and have further dimensions in play corresponding to expectations, emotions, at least five senses, and real problems to solve—often trivial ones, but real nonetheless.

Most of you probably create and use user profiles and scenarios during development to help understand your user base. These are wonderful tools, but I have yet to see a scenario that includes someone needing help. I’ve never seen a scenario with a truly clueless user that just doesn’t get it. Yet, we’ve all heard the stories from the customer service people, so we know these people exist. When you pull out those assembly instructions or operating instructions or even the help manual, they really don’t help because they weren’t part of the scenario or within the scope of the project (because the help system never gets the same consideration and becomes an afterthought). They may not be part of the “interface,” but they are part of the experience.

This is what it means to create delightful experiences, and is a good way of approaching the design of any products or services. What delights me is when I’m surprised at how thoughtful someone is, how nice someone is in an adverse situation, and when things unexpectedly go the way I think they should (which is most likely how I expect a person to act).

“What we need are human values integrated into our development processes that treat people as they expect to be treated and build solutions that reflect human nature.”Interfaces must exhibit human values

Think about how your audience would relate to your solution (operating system, application, website, etc.) if it were a person.

Now, I’m not talking about bringing back Bob. In fact, Bob was the worst approach to these ideas. He embodied a person visually and then acted like the least courteous, most annoying person possible. But this doesn’t just apply to anthropomorphized interfaces with animations or video agents. All applications and interfaces exhibit the characteristics that Nass and Reeves have studied. Even before Microsoft Word had Clippy—or whatever that little pest is called—it was a problem. Word acts like one of those haughty salesclerks in a pricey boutique. It knows better than you. You specify 10-point Helvetica but it gives you 12-point Times at every opportunity. It constantly and consistently guesses wrong on almost every thing. Want to delete that line? It takes hitting the delete key three times if the line above it starts with a number, because of course it must, must be a numbered list you wanted. You were just too stupid to know how to do it. Interfaces like that of Word might be capable in some circumstances, but they are a terrible experience because they go against human values of courtesy, understanding and helpfulness, not to mention grace and subtlety.

So when you’re developing a tool, an interface, an application or modifying the operating system itself, my advice throughout development and user testing is to ask yourself what type of person is your interface most like? Is it helpful or boorish? Is it nice or impatient? Is it dumb or does it make reasonable assumptions? Is it something you would want to spend a lot of time with? Because, guess what, you are spending a lot of time with it, and so will your users.

I don’t expect devices to out-think me, think for me, or protect me any more than I expect people to in my day-to-day life. But I do expect them to learn simple things about my preferences from my behavior, just like I expect people to in the real world.

Human experiences as a model

When developers approach complex problems, they usually try to simplify them; in other words, “dumb them down.” This is usually a failure because they can’t, really, take the complexity out of life. In fact, complexity is one of the good things about life. Instead, we should be looking for ways to model the problem in human terms, and the easiest way to do this to look at how humans behave with each other—the good behaviors, please. Conversations, for example, can be an effective model for browsing a database (show example). This doesn’t work in every case, but it is a very natural (and comfortable) way of constructing a complex search query without overloading a user. And just because the values are expressed in words doesn’t mean they can’t correspond to query terms or numerical values. An advanced search page is perfectly rational and might accurately reflect how the data is modeled in a database, but it isn’t natural for people to use, making it uncomfortable for the majority, despite how many technologically-aware people might be able to use it. There is nothing wrong about these check-box-laden screens, but there is nothing right about them either. We’ve just come to accept them.

God is in the details

As Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” Well, these are the details and the fact that they’re too often handled poorly means that technological devices are ruled by a God that is either sloppy, careless, absent-minded, inhuman, or all of the above.

This isn’t terribly difficult but it does take time and attention. And we don’t need artificial intelligence, heads-up displays, neural nets, or virtual reality to accomplish it. There is a reason why my mother isn’t a fighter pilot—several, in fact. But the automobile industry in the U.S. spends tens of millions of dollars each year trying to develop a heads-up display for cars. That’s all my mother needs—one more thing to distract her from the road, break down someday, and scare her even more about technology and making a mistake. What we need are human values integrated into our development processes that treat people as they expect to be treated and build solutions that reflect human nature.

Everything is riding on this: expansion into new markets, upselling newer and more sophisticated equipment, solving complex organizational problems, reducing costs for customer service, reducing maintenance costs, reducing frustration, and (most of all) satisfying people and helping them lead more meaningful lives. Companies fail to differentiate themselves anymore on quality or tangibles. Instead, they try to differentiate themselves on “brand.” What marketers and engineers often don’t “get” is that the only way to differentiate themselves on brand is by creating compelling experiences with their products and services (and not the marketing around them). Niketown and the Apple Stores would never have succeeded—at least not for long—had they not been selling good product experiences. This isn’t the only reason the Microsoft store failed (a tourist destination for buying Microsoft-branded shirts and stationery really wasn’t meeting anyone’s needs), but it was part of it. Gateway, in comparison, has been much more successful, though they still aren’t getting it quite right.

The Apple Store is a good example. You can actually buy things and walk out with them (unlike the Gateway stores which really disappoint customers by breaking this social assumption). What’s more, anyone can walk in, buy a DVD-R (they come only in 5-packs, though) and burn a DVD on the store equipment. Really, I’ve done it. I may be the only person who has ever taken Steve Jobs up on this offer, but it is a very important interaction because most people aren’t going to have DVDRs for awhile—and neither are their friends. Most people don’t even have CDRs, but if they want to burn a DVD of their children’s birthday party to send to the grandparents, what else are they going to do? This recognition of their users’ reality is what made Apple’s approach legendary (not that it hasn’t been tarnished often). It’s not a technological fix, it’s not even an economic one. In this case, access is the important issue and allowing people to walk in off the street, connect their hard drive or portable, and create something with their precious memories became the solution. It works because it supports our human values (in this case, sharing). It works because this is what you would expect of a friend or someone you considered helpful. This is not only a terrific brand-enhancing experience, it jives with our expectation about how things should be and that is what social and human values are all about.

This is not a crisis of technology or computing power, but one of imagination, understanding and courage. I would love to see designers create solutions that felt more human in the values they exhibited. This is what really changes people’s behaviors and opinions. Just wanting things to be “easy to use” isn’t enough anymore—if it ever was. If you want to differentiate your solution, if you want to create and manage a superior customer relationship, then find ways to codify all those little insights experts have, in any field, about what their customers need, desire, and know into behaviors that make your interfaces feel like they’re respecting and valuing those customers. This is the future of user experiences, user interfaces, customer relations and it’s actually a damn fine future.

For more information

  • Microsoft Bob was a “personal information manual” Microsoft built around Nass and Reeves’ research. Bob was a personified (read “anthropomorphized) character that represented the application. He came with a cadre of associates who could be chosen instead of Bob by users based on the personality characteristics that felt more comfortable. Fair enough. Bob’s downfall, however, is that no matter which character the user chose, they were all too prominent and annoying, failing to understand that the times they were needed and desired were drastically less than their programming assumed and that their personalities raised our expectations far beyond what they were capable of delivering.
  • Media Equation by Cliff Nass and Byron Reeves. C S L I Publications, June 1999.
Nathan Shedroff has been an experience designer for over twelve years. He has written extensively on the subject and maintains a website with resources on Experience Design at www.nathan.com/ed. He can be reached at .

“Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping”

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“Experience design,” as it’s often used in the online world, refers to everything a customer comes in contact with when having experience with a brand—what the colors are, what emotions the design conveys, how the text is written, ease of interaction with the web site, how the content is structured, and much more. Information architects and designers sometimes forget that there is an offline experience as well; Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” explores customer experience and consumer behavior as they affect retail and offline environments.

Much has changed about ecommerce since this book was first published, but many of its predictions about online retailing have come to fruition.Overall, the book is a lively read, chock full of interesting stories, research data, and case studies. There are sections dealing with product usability, environmental graphics and navigation, demographic issues, location, marketing and promotion. Obviously a seasoned professional, Underhill presents business issues in a straightforward manner, backing up his claims and suggestions with anecdotal and statistical evidence.

Though the majority of the book focuses on “traditional” retailing, Chapter 17 specifically talks about online retailing. Much has changed about ecommerce since this book was first published (May 1999), but many of Underhill’s predictions about online retailing have come to fruition, and his bottom-line insistence on “you need a reason to start a web site” rings true in today’s economic environment.

One neglected aspect of ecommerce he mentions on the first page of the chapter has already been addressed by many retailers: “Few web sites will permit you to see if a particular item is in stock in a store near you, order it, pay for it and then go in person to retrieve it.” It would be interesting to hear the author’s feelings on the current state of online retailing three years after this was written and see what advances he feels have been made and what problems still need to be addressed.

Another brilliant aspect of this book is its universal appeal. While those interested in usability and ecommerce have snapped it up, it is not limited to those limited audiences. (In fact, those who lament “I can’t explain to my Mom what I do all day” might benefit from suggesting a read of “Why We Buy” and then adding, “It’s like that but with web sites.”)

If there’s any downfall of the book, it would be the sometimes-meandering text. The reader may expect a more of a textbook-like approach to physical experience design, but Underhill’s writing style mixes case studies with anecdotes, business, psychology, and opinions.

Though divided up into four sections and 19 chapters that purport to focus on specific topics, the end results often diverge from their intended subject. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it feels as though Underhill is leading the reader on a walking tour of a business, pointing out issues during the journey and recalling anecdotes whenever appropriate. However, those looking for a tome on the design of physical commerce spaces need look elsewhere.

There are dozens of lessons in “Why We Buy” that can be learned by those involved in web development, whether in ecommerce or brochureware. One is that, even after decades of running tests, Underhill and his staff are still learning new things and uncovering problems they’ve never noticed before, showing that continual learning is essential.

The author also talks about the importance of evaluating elements in the environment in which the customer will interact with them. (“Showing me a sign in a conference room, while ideal from the graphic designer’s point of view, is the absolute worst way to see if it’s any good. To say whether a sign or any in-store media works or not, there’s only one way to assess it—in place.”)

He devotes a good deal of printed space to the differences in the shopping habits of men and women, as well as the growing aging population and children, which suggests that these demographically-influenced habits (and others) could carry over to the online world.

However, two main messages permeate throughout, and they should be familiar, since those involved in designing the user experience online have been focused on them all along.

First, understand your customer and make things easy for them. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable, don’t confuse them, don’t make them do more work than they should. Structure things so that they make sense to your customer, for their actions will determine whether or not what you have done is successful.

Secondly, understand the business goals and design your changes to work towards those goals. Aesthetics, navigation, and structure are of no use if they don’t support the business objectives. And, of course, designing with your shopper/user in mind will help you reach these goals.

About the book:

  • “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping”
  • Paco Underhill
  • Simon & Schuster, 1999
  • ISBN 0-684-84913-5
  • 225 pages
  • Hardcover retail price, $25.00; Paperback retail price, $15.00
  • Target audience: Anyone interested in retail or ecommerce
  • Sections:
     I–Instead of Samoa, Stores: The Science of Shopping
     II–Walk Like an Egyptian: The Mechanics of Shopping
     III–Men are from Sears Hardware, Women are from Bloomingale’s: The Demographics of Shopping
     IV–See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Buy Me: The Dynamics of Shopping
Jeff Lash is working on improving the intranet user experience at Premcor. He was previously an Information Architect at Xplane and is the co-founder of the St. Louis Group for Information Architecture.

The Age of Findability

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The Third Annual Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore compelled my first visit to the new, state-of-the-art terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

As I approached the airport on a cold March morning, perhaps I should have been excited. After all, the $1.2 billion Northwest World Gateway was billed as the terminal of the future. According to Northwest Airlines, I was about to have “one of the world’s greatest travel experiences.”

But in reality, I felt dread. I was late for my flight and desperately needed a restroom and a cup of coffee in exactly that order. What I didn’t need was the challenge of finding my way in a new airport.

After circumnavigating “the largest single parking structure in the world ever built at one time” three times, in search of long-term parking, I finally broke down, asked a security guard, and was told the signs for international parking actually lead to long-term parking. Of course!

Several circles of hell later, freshly sprung from the airport security checkpoint and a full-body pat down, I emerged into the spectacular center of Concourse A. High-arched ceilings soared above. Luxury retail stores lined the hall. Straight ahead, a black granite elliptical water fountain fired choreographed, illuminated streams of water, “representing the connections made via global travel.”

Unfortunately, what I couldn’t find was a sign pointing to one of the 475 public restroom stalls inside this 2-million square-foot complex. To cut a long and painful story short, I was 30,000 feet in the air before I finally got my cup of coffee.

Name that pain
Jakob Nielsen might say this airport has usability problems. Conduct a heuristic evaluation, run a few user tests, fix the worst blunders, and you’re on your way. That’s the great thing about usability. It applies to everything. Websites, software, cameras, fishing rods and airports. It’s one hell of a powerful word.

Lou Rosenfeld might say this airport has information architecture problems. But he probably wouldn’t. While maps and signs fit comfortably into the domain of information architecture, it’s a stretch to include the structural design of an airport terminal or the solicitation of feedback from frustrated travelers. Like it or not, information architecture has boundaries. Unfortunately, our clumsy two-word label isn’t quite as flexible as Jakob’s.

That’s why I say this airport has findability problems. The difficultly I had finding my way dominated all other aspects of the experience. Like usability, findability applies broadly across all sorts of physical and virtual environments. And, perhaps most important, it’s only one word!

Post-Hum(or)ous self-definition
At Argus Associates, we built a consulting firm that specialized in “information architecture” and we wrote a book to explain and explore the topic.

In the past year, our company has been post-hum(or)ously accused of practicing “Content IA,” a pejorative label that bothers me.

It’s absolutely true that we Argonauts brought the strengths and biases of library science to the IA table. And, we certainly focused more on organizing sites with massive amounts of content than on designing task and process flows for online applications.

However, this focus was indicative, not of a love for content, but of a passion for designing systems that help people find what they need.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t declare this passion too openly, because in the 1990s most customers weren’t buying “findability.”

At first, they focused on image and technology. Remember the early days of glossy brochure web sites and hyperactive Java applications? Later, they learned to ask for usability, scalability and manageability. They had felt some pain, but not enough.

In order to create a big tent, we sold “information architecture,” striking a delicate balance between our clients’ needs and wants. But all along, we maintained a deep conviction that, in the long run, the most important and challenging aspect of our work would involve enabling people to find stuff.

So, if you want to label the Argus brand of information architecture, rather than calling it Argus IA or Content IA or Polar Bear IA, I humbly suggest that you call it Findability IA. Or else!

Arrows over boxes
True to form, I’ve always resisted attempts to canonically define information architecture. In an emerging field, the last thing you want to do is prematurely place its identity inside a box, or should I say coffin?

However, information architecture is entering a new stage of maturity. IA roles and responsibilities are firming up. The IA community is taking shape. While we insiders argue over the minutia, a de facto definition of information architecture has emerged and reached critical mass. There’s no going back.

On one level, this is wonderfully exciting. For many of us who labored in obscurity in the early 1990s, this is validation that our vision of the future wasn’t completely crazy.

But this is also frightening. With maturity comes rigidity. We’re finding ourselves trapped inside boxes of our own making. And those arrows that connect us to related disciplines and new challenges are looking mighty appealing.

After all, it’s a tough sell to argue that content management and knowledge management and social computing and participation economics are all components of the big umbrella of information architecture. The IA tent is simply not that big.

And yet, we information architects are fascinated by these topics. We yearn to escape our boxes and follow the arrows.

For me, findability delivers this freedom. It doesn’t replace information architecture. And it’s really not a school or brand of information architecture. Findability is about recognizing that we live in a multi-dimensional world, and deciding to explore new facets that cut across traditional boundaries.

Findability isn’t limited to content. Nor is it limited to the Web. Findability is about designing systems that help people find what they need.

The age of findability
Even inside the small world of user experience design, findability doesn’t get enough attention. Interaction design is sexier. Usability is more obvious.

And yet, findability will eventually be recognized as a central and defining challenge in the development of web sites, intranets, knowledge management systems and online communities.

Why? Because the growing size and importance of our systems place a huge burden on findability. As Lou posits “despite this growth, the set of usability and interaction design problems doesn’t really change…(but) information architecture does get more and more challenging.”

Ample evidence exists to support this bold claim. Companies are failing to deliver findability. For example, a recent study by Vividence Research found poorly organized search results and poor information architecture design to be the two most common and serious usability problems.

This resonates with my experience interviewing users of Fortune 500 web sites and intranets. Some of these poor souls are ready to burst into tears as they recount their frustrations trying to find what they need inside these massive information spaces.

At the IA Summit, usability expert Steve Krug also agreed with this bold claim, noting that his company’s motto doesn’t apply to the challenges faced by information architects. Designing for findability is rocket surgery!

In the coming years, our work will only become more difficult. But that’s a good thing. Consider the following passage from a fascinating article written by business strategy guru Michael Porter:

“Companies need to stop their rush to adopt generic ‘out of the box’ packaged applications and instead tailor their deployment of Internet technology to their particular strengths…The very difficulty of the task contributes to the sustainability of the resulting competitive advantage.”1

That last sentence applies directly to the work we do. We all have a great deal of difficult and important work ahead. There’s an awful lot of findability in our future.

Where do we go from here?
I wrote this article to explore findabilty as both a word and a concept. I’d be very interested in your reactions. Does findability strike a chord? Are you intrigued by the design of findable objects? Are you ready to become a findability engineer? Or does this pseudo-word annoy you? Is findability overrated? Do you prefer a future filled with expensive, beautiful airports that just happen to be unnavigable? Comments please!

For more information:

  1. “Strategy and the Internet,” by Michael E. Porter in Harvard Business Review, March 2001.
Peter Morville is President of Semantic Studios, an information architecture and knowledge management consulting firm and co-author of the best-selling book, “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.”

The Big O: IA Lessons from Orienteering

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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.