Linear thinking

As ever, Gerry McGovern’s weekly email on website management is provocative. ‘The primary purpose of web navigation is to help people to move forward,’ he writes this week. ‘It is not to tell them where they have been, or where they could have gone.’ He uses a great illustration, not without merit, but which misses a key point:

Let’s say you’re out driving. You come to a junction where you are offered a choice between heading to New York or Boston. You take the road to New York. Would you find it useful to be constantly reminded that you can still turn around and head to Boston?

This would be a fantastic analogy in a linear medium like road travel, but the web isn’t like that. Particularly when something like half the traffic of a typical website comes through Google, and you can’t ever be sure where someone is going to land. If they strike it lucky, and land on the perfect page, that’s brilliant. If not, they’ll need some kind of clues as to where they need to go next.
The more dominant Google becomes, the less likely people are to start at the homepage, and work their way through. Which makes design and IA all the more difficult.