Fashion and good navigation can work together. Maybe.

Anyone who follows our thoughts will know that we’re not big fans of the current trend towards minimalist navigation on corporate websites. We can see the attraction of clearing left menus out of the way, and for simple sites it’s quite fine – but for more complex ones usability always suffers. Or at least it has everywhere we have looked. Apologies if you’re bored with the whole subject, but there may be a way out.

The trend is overwhelming. A few sites have relaunched in the last couple of years with left nav – BP, Total, NovoNordisk come to mind – but they are many times outnumbered by those that have taken the minimalist route. While we would be quite happy if everyone headed back to menu-land, that isn’t going to happen. So let’s keep looking for a compromise.

We have an expression – the navigation challenge – that is all about finding that compromise. Can anyone create a complex site that mixes top usability with ‘no left nav’ on a full size screen (the sort used by most visitors to corporate sites)? We run tests with realistic journeys. For example a jobseeker in the careers section checking out a company’s environmental credentials and history. Or a financial journalist looking first at quarterly results, then the annual report, then the latest press releases. These require horizontal movement, perhaps deep within the site. And that’s tricky when you have got rid of a nicely visible set of links alongside the page.

A few companies do not acknowledge the problem. ExxonMobil makes you click and scroll like anything, especially in an area like Investors that does not have a dropdown menu. But most make at least some effort to tackle it. Big dropdown panels are the most common technique – the best, as used by Barclays, allow you to drill down into the site; and so by extension move across it when you are already deep in it. But you always have to click again to see the panel, and unless there is a breadcrumb trail as well, you cannot see easily where you are. Shell does have a trail, but the panel only goes down one level, so it is hard to avoid scrolling and scanning to move around. A fashionable spin on this is to have a mobile-style ‘hamburger’ menu to display a panel – though I don’t really understand this as it removes the option of having a different panel for each main link.

Other ideas have surfaced. Daimler uses the hamburger thing, but also changes the top menu as you move from the first to the second level: it could be clever, but I find it more confusing than anything. Qualcomm and ABB both use narrow strips down the left – click on different elements and panels pop out with more options. These look elegant, but have the same disadvantage as dropdown panels – you have to click them each time you want to do something.

Then last week we wrote up a particularly promising one in a BC Tip: Verizon’s ‘triple deck’ approach. Double deck menu bars used to be fairly widespread in the old days, though always in combination with a left menu – they were one way of keeping that menu shorter on a deep site. But the triple decker approach is designed to replace a left menu, and it works pretty well – the top two menus are in view when you are at the second or third level, so you can get around a fair bit without having to open up a new menu. But the third level menu does not stay in place when you are looking at a page down there – see for example the quarterly results page. That’s a drawback.

So can there be an answer to the navigation challenge? I think the Verizon approach could come close, with a bit of modification: keep all decks of the menu in view at lower levels, squeeze them together to free up viewable space. Maybe add a fourth deck. ‘Stick’ the menu to the top of the screen. If the links being used are highlighted, you will have a de facto breadcrumb trail. Then see how easy it is to move around. Of course minimalist purists will scoff because lots of links will be in view. Let them I say: it’s the users I care about.

Not all fashion is bad

We may not like what’s going on in navigation, but a trend we do rather like is for ‘looping videos’, particularly on home pages. They bring gentle life to what can otherwise be rather dull pictures – JK Rowling thought them up for her Daily Prophet newspaper, but here they are flourishing on Muggle websites. We wrote about some of them last year and were not enthusiastic, saying that ‘they can be headache-inducing’. But we were talking then about the very short, and thus inevitably dull, Vine videos – seeing the same thing again every six seconds is likely to have you reaching for an aspirin.

But the new generation videos are longer and subtler, with ‘joins’ that are hard to spot. There are several, stacked, on the home page of Verizon’s corporate site: the drone at the top is fun, though I think the low profile videos of kids in a classroom, or even a lady whose head moves a little, work particularly well. If you want more examples, try TNO, Siemens’ current home page, and Tetrapak’s innovation section. There will surely be more; no aspirin needed. 

David Bowen

BC tip: Verizon - Tripling up to crack the navigation challenge

The US telecommunications giant does better than most in making up for the lack of a left menu.

The Feature

Verizon’s corporate information section, which is linked from the customer-facing site, has been relaunched with a new look and feel. As part of this it has adopted a ‘triple decker’ navigation system. There is no left menu, but parallel menus at the top provide routes to the third level of content easily. For example, mousing over Investors in the top menu reveals a menu below it with five links, including Financial Reporting. Mousing over this shows another six, such as Quarterly Earnings and Annual Reports. When one is on a second or third level page, the two top menus are in permanent view, so one can get directly to the other main sections of investors.

The Takeaway

Ever since a desire to create more space for visible content persuaded web builders and managers to dispense with left menus, they have struggled to regain the usability that has inevitably been lost. The particular problem is with moving horizontally deep within a site: we call this the navigation challenge, and have yet to see anyone cracking it fully.  

Verizon does better than most. It gives easy access to the third layer of pages, and has one advantage over its nearest parallel – the dropdown mega-panel – in that the top two levels of menus are in view. No extra click or hovering needed. It would be easier still if the third menu were also in view when at that level, but we’d guess it has been decided that would take up too much space. The answer could be to close the menus up a bit – and to add a breadcrumb trail for extra help. The question about how to handle lower level navigation is left hanging. But in areas where the full width page really does help – such as Careers > Working here – this is best answer to the ‘challenge’ we have seen for a while.

http://www.verizon.com/about/

Mixing politics and social media - only in America?

Conventional wisdom says that corporate communications and political controversy do not mix. Big corporations have always been political, but usually prefer to work behind the scenes, lobbying politicians, funding campaigns or quietly trying to influence public opinion on issues directly relevant to their business.

Something seems to be changing in the US though, where a number of household corporate names have been staking out public positions on divisive political issues such as gay marriage, immigration reform and whether to display the Confederate flag.

The trend is well summarised and analysed here and here.

This is of particular interest to digital managers because online channels are playing a big role in getting the message out. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple tweeted his support in June for the US Supreme Court’s decision legalising gay marriage. Retail giant Target tweeted from its official account, ‘Here’s to having, holding and marrying who you love’. Macy’s, AT&T, American Airlines and several others followed suit. In June, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, used Twitter to call on the state of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its capitol building. A number of other high-profile CEOs did the same.

I did a quick search on a handful of corporate websites of companies that have been vocal on social media – Apple, Target, Microsoft, Wal-Mart Stores and Boeing. There was little or nothing on these issues on the main sites, and the phenomenon appears to be limited to blogs and microsites. Here is Microsoft’s blog on a gay marriage bill in Washington state in 2012. Target discusses same-sex marriage in several entries on its executive blog, including this. Caterpillar mentions immigration (albeit in a very dry way) here and Verizon (much more entertainly) on net neutrality. Boeing has a section on diversity policies for gay, lesbian and transgender employees but we could not find anything on the politics.

What is behind companies’ newfound willingness to take clear positions in America’s culture wars? Partly it is because the battles (for public opinion at least) have already been won. On gay marriage, the Confederate flag, and immigration reform, there is concentrated and vocal opposition, but broad public support. The definition of ‘stakeholder’ is changing for businesses, and they are particularly conscious of presenting a progressive, forward-thinking image to current and future employees. The freedom and expectations for social media and blogs are also driving the trend. If you are company tweeting, posting and blogging, boring corporate-speak will not do; there is an expectation to be clear and interesting.

There may be a cultural angle at work too – it is more acceptable in the US, as opposed to say, Europe, to wear your politics on your sleeve. Americans routinely drop political opinions into conversations with relative strangers, where in other countries your politics stay between you and the walls of the polling booth.

- Jason Sumner