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Oct 12, 2004: Global IA Widget

In the spirit of LazyWeb, here's something that'd be really useful for global information architectures, assuming it's even feasible to design. It'd be wonderful for some interface design genius to create a navigational widget that can:

  • Orient users to where they are in a site
  • Help users navigate to an appropriate locale by first helping them to select a language option, then a country option; and do this without using pull-down menus (which present plenty of well-documented usability challenges)
  • Be sufficiently small and unimposing to be consistently embedded in pages by many different site managers within a large, global web environment; and yet be obvious enough to be sought by users who want to want to move from global to local content, or change locales

This widget would be useful to place in transitional parts of a site, such as when users want to switch locales, move from one language's version of a page of content to another, or from internationalized content to localized content.

I'm hoping for a clearer, consistent way to enable navigation within global sites. I haven't seen a killer way to do this yet, and maybe it'll never happen. But hey, one can always dream...

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Comment: James Spahr (Oct 12, 2004)

"Be sufficiently small and unimposing to be consistently embedded in pages by many different site managers within a large, global web environment;"

That is the trick, isn't it? hmmm....

Comment: Jorge Arango (Oct 12, 2004)

Or this: "which present plenty of well-documented usability challenges"

It could probably be done with Flash, DHTML, Java, or other "non-native" approaches. However, these solutions would probably have usability problems similar to the ones posed by the dropdowns.

Comment: Andrew (Oct 12, 2004)

Lou, isn't that called "the URL field?"

Comment: Lou (Oct 12, 2004)

Heh. No, not really; even if URLs could somehow be made so readable and logical, most users wouldn't know to edit them in the way I think you're describing.

Comment: Victor (Oct 13, 2004)

While it's possible to do programmatically, it may not be applicable to many sites. If we look at how various sites do this...
http://noisebetweenstations.com/personal/essays/internationalization/

... we see these interfaces follow different business rules. For some, region may also be a necessary choice. Sometimes instead of country being a subset of language it's the reverse. And so on.

But I have the same hope you do. The gallery I link to shows we're grasping at better ways to do this, and it'd be nice to popularize the better methods we've devised so far.

Comment: Lou (Oct 13, 2004)

Victor, fabulous gallery. I especially like the last two examples, which don't necessarily assume that user reads English.

Comment: Liv Labate (Oct 15, 2004)

Apart from clickable maps and/or lists (drop down menus, list of links or radio buttons), I haven't seen anything that would achieve what you are looking for in the successful way you are describing it. (the good ones achieve these results, but at some cost to ease of understanding - which means they don't achieve the result *every time*).

I definitely don't have the answer for this, but it makes me think that the answer lies in a mix or 1) better metaphors and 2) better interaction.

1. Must we always use those things (links, drop down boxes, radio buttons, maps) whenever we have to make choices that implicate options with two variables (country and language)? Is it possible that there are no better metaphors? [*]

2. Couldn't we achieve better results (even with the current methods) simply by having richer interfaces (RIAs are coming to make the world a better place...) in the sense that we can facilitate these choices through a better surface (visual interaction)?

Whatever the widget that enables all this, I can only imagine how hard it would be to have it implemented without a good internationalization/localization strategy - and that's one of the big problems in Global IA projects. I don't want to be pessimistic, but it's yet another problem to consider when creating our wishlist.

[*] on a somewhat related, an still entirely different topic - "compound hypertext" is my favorite term these days, because it implicates in a paradigm shift for design and implementation - when we start out these projects we have major assumptions, like for example, that the interaction means having the user click on things. Perhaps stopping and thinking about how that assumption causes our points of difficulty could be a way to cross the chasm between getting locale users to where they should be.

I see RIAs as the tools to enable this - but that's for some other night of insomnia...

Comment: John Yunker (Oct 18, 2004)

I don't think one widget is going to solve all these issues, but it's certainly a big step forward. I refer to it as the "global gateway" - not the ideal term, but it seems to resonate well with most people. It absolutely has to be positioned consistently in highly visible locations on all Web pages; the space that appears to becoming most popular is the upper-right-hand corner of the Web page.

I recommend four steps in all to creating a seamless global navigation experience. Here are some additional thoughts on this topic - it's a hugely important issues -

http://bytelevel.com/global/20020621.html
http://bytelevel.com/global/20020422.html

Comment: Lou (Oct 19, 2004)

Thanks John, and thanks for your wonderful book; I really recommend it.

I agree that one widget is unlikely, but maybe we could have variations on a theme designed for different points where people wanted to switch locales (e.g., one for the main page, another for content pages). These would be designed to look and work consistently, so if a user encountered one of these widgets, he'd recognize and know how to the others.

Comment: David (Oct 22, 2004)

Hi Lou,
Great quest ... I first think it is necessary to understand why the existing models don't work. I mean the drop down the links to a new page, etc. They have a common thread ... click > view list > select from list. This is very progressive in how it displays the information. It hides it (probably the biggest usability issue) and then keeps everything in a single list. The whole page approach has the advantage of being able to segment things using layout techniques like a map, clustering, and others (some in combination).

I think the other issue is that we are putting the oness on the the designer a bit here. Not that I'm afraid of a good design challenge, but I believe the solution needs to be multi-faceted. A possible scenario is the development of standards for language, region, and country codes that developers of sites can work again. On the other side of the divide browsers could be enabled to take the keyboard preference setting (or similiar OS-based setting and enhance it. Maybe you can have a setting in teh browser where you select a cascading net of up to 5 languages. When you get to a site it checks your settings against its own availabilities and re-directs you accordingly automatically to the appropriate site. If you want to/need to switch betwen languages at that point, I think we return to the original problem, but I think we got the real 80-20 case out of the way in an elegant way that has an upfront cost on both sides, but I think that cost is really low compared to the realities of what it means to be successful.

- dave

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