Usability Week Amsterdam

Apr 05, 2014

My experience at the NN/g Usability Week conference

After an enlightening five days training with Nielsen Norman Group, it is time to relax, and digest all that I have learned and understood.

I found the courses were all strong on they why’s - neither one that I took, from Analytics and User Experience through to The Human Mind and Usability skipped this important factor.

The five courses I chose were broad ranging, with a couple of them what I would consider areas I need to work on Analytics and User Experience, and Information Architecture: Navigation, a couple that related to my interest in why we do what we do, The Human Mind and Usability, and User Interface Principles Every Designer Must Know, and one to reinforce that I do know what I’m talking about Top Web UX Design Guidelines!

I won’t break down each course individually, but it was as broad as I had hoped, going from Gestalt psychology, Hick’s law, Asch’s Confomity Experiments, through to Digital Marketing Measurement Models, eyetracking studies, A/B testing, and so much more.

Some courses had a lot of participation, with fun exercises, and some were more lecture based with lots of video material, including this funny example about change blindness.

As my personality dictates, I won’t focus on the many positive reinforcing things that happened this week, or my ever-growing belief that I do actually know what I’m talking about! I will mention one example of where things didn’t quite go as well as expected, and what I learned from that.

A lesson from the IA course

Perhaps one thing I really need to work on is the over-reliance of looking at favoured examples, as I discovered in the Information Architecture class, it is good to follow patterns, but if the pattern doesn’t match the problem, then it needs further exploration.

As a group we had the task to look at the Stanford Law School website, and to see how we could improve this fairly complex five tier navigation.

Stanford Law School's website
The fifth tier of navigation on the Stanford Law School website

Our first hypotheses was to switch School, Program, and Experience to the top level, and then discuss the secondary navigation. We spoke about mega menus (report about them here), as being one solution, we spoke about left hand navigation being another, and we spoke about a secondary horizontal bar.

In the end we felt there were issues with all of them:

  • mega menus - had the least issues between the group, although my ingrained concern about hover effects were my main worries here.
  • left hand navigation - with a maximum of five tiers of navigation, we were worried about how to tackle tiers four and five. Breadcrumbs were fine, but the left hand menu would need to either change on each page, we’d have to go with inline links, or we’d have to have options fold out down the left hand side. Neither were popular.
  • secondary horizontal bar - as the BBC have implemented. We discounted this because it isn’t extensible, as Amazon found in the early 2000s.
Amazon.com joke showing many horizontal tabs
Poking fun at Amazon's horizontal tabs

After much debate, we decided to look at how other sites had solved their navigational woes for deep hierarchy, and as people who will know me will know, one of my ‘go to’ sites when looking at organisation is Gov.uk.

We followed this pattern, as you will see below, introducing breadcrumbs, making search more prominent, and having related content/contact information on the right hand page of the final tier.

Stanford Law navigation hypotheses

Despite recognising the fact that a deeper hierarchy would make search more necessary, we felt that this was not too much of a problem, as long as we had a good search, and we rewrote some of the headings to make them more self explanatory…

Peer critique didn’t go down too well though!

I think the major concern of the group was that the primary goal of the user is to get to a list of ‘Joint Degrees’ quickly and easily, and find their tuition fees. By introducing extra paths to go down, you could send the user down the wrong pathway - and even with clear signposting, this is something that of course is a risk.

Personally, I still think it could work (with refinement, and lots of content editing), but it was still a very good reminder that sketching, presenting, and refining are things you must do when working on a web project, and to reiterate, it’s good to have favourite sites, but they will not always be the best to draw inspiration from.