Essential Navigation Aids

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May 2013
by Joel Friedlander
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Picture this: you pick up a book and open it, only to discover that every page is exactly the same, a tall rectangle of text extending close to the edge of the page and without interruption.

There are no spaces between paragraphs because there are no paragraphs, no chapters, no page numbers, no running heads, just text.

Does it sound appealing? No, not to me, either.

How frustrating it would be to try to read a book like that. Where did I leave off? What part of the book am I in? I might feel the author had forced me to be responsible for providing order and organization in the book.

I’m pretty sure I would put it right back down.

Over centuries we’ve developed conventions about how to present long text documents like books, and readers—who have grown up reading books that mostly follow those conventions—have come to expect them. And to rely on them.

Sentences present a logical line of thought, moving ideas or action forward.

Chapters divide a long work according to some thematic or organizational construct.

Sections within chapters deal with parts of themes or subjects.

As a book designer, I use raw material—typography and any nontext elements in a book—to create an environment in which the author’s ideas can be transmitted cleanly and with little interference to the reader.

But we designers add stuff, too. We add the page break at a new chapter, to signal the reader that one thing is ending and another is about to begin. We add page numbers to give a sense of the third dimension of the book—its length—as well as a handy reference to mark a specific page. We add running heads with more or less descriptive titles, so each page has something of a “breadcrumb trail” that shows its relation to the whole.

As in these images, navigation aids can appear as running heads and folios in a book.

All the conventions of book design reflect a concern for the reader, for giving the reader just enough information to navigate through the book, without being distracted from the experience of the journey.

Similar goals, I’ve recently realized, characterize setting up marketing material for the Internet.

Road Signs in Bits and Bytes

I spent quite a bit of time last year setting up landing pages, sales pages, a membership site, affiliate tracking, payment gateways, recurring payment buttons, and automated email messages, all of which I came to think of as “Internet plumbing.”

On the Internet, innumerable bits and pieces have to fit together so that what happens is what we expect to happen. For example, if you read about a video that sounds interesting, and you click through to the page and find you have to enter your email address in order to see the video, what happens next?

Behind the scenes, three entities have to play their parts. Software from a mailing list company plus an e-commerce service plus gateway tracking software on the site that delivers the video must each do something and communicate with each other. If there’s a leak in the pipe or a broken connection, the user doesn’t get a request to confirm an email address with the list vendor.

Or the user gets the wrong email, one that doesn’t mention the video the user wanted to see. Or what the user gets is a sales pitch.

We have expectations that come into play online, and they are powerful. We have a healthy skepticism about dealing with people we don’t know. We want to be guided at every step of the way, even if we know the messages we’re getting are automated. We want a receipt, a link, an acknowledgment, a support number, a reminder when an event is coming up. We want to feel secure that the video, when we arrive there, actually delivers what was promised.

When you’re designing material for the Internet, you have to keep in mind that many people don’t spend 12 hours a day online and that these things can be confusing. If a Website says “Register for the Webinar,” a certain percentage of people will be stumped unless it explicitly says, “First click this link, then look for the ‘Pay now’ button.” Specifics are enabling, and reassuring.

It’s a matter of breaking down the process so navigational aids are available at every step. That’s what makes me more comfortable, especially if I’m doing something new. Communication that’s recognizable, in the same voice, with the same branding, specifically about what I inquired or clicked about. That makes me secure.

The kind of congruence that breeds confidence. This example features the branding for a Website and for an email about subscribing to it.

Behind the Need

In both cases—designing books and setting up Internet marketing processes—the best guides to what will work and what won’t work are the people who are going to use the system.

But you wonder why we need so much hand-holding, so many navigational aids. There seem to be two reasons, both rooted in the nature of human consciousness and psychology.

First, there are so many demands on our short-term awareness, we can’t keep a lot of data handy all the time on all subjects. We dump data out of our memory quickly, often to make room for all the new stuff that’s constantly coming in. This means that, to function properly, most of us need a lot of reminding.

Second, we like to dive into experience. When reading, we want to lose ourselves in the experience a book offers. When we’re excited about learning something new, we want to get onto that and not have to worry about the details and arrangements, which seem only to get in the way.

Designed signposts and other navigational aids, delivered in a thoughtful and gracious way, allow us to experience reading a book or signing up for a Webinar as a pleasant experience. The skilled book designer makes sure we always know where we are in the book, and gives the experience a rhythm conducive to reading. The skilled Internet marketer makes sure we always know exactly where we are in the process, who we’re dealing with, that we’ll be taken care of and will have the experience we’re anticipating.

For Best Results

Whether you’re providing entertainment in the form of novels or information in the form of nonfiction, you’ll be dealing with both book design and Internet marketing, and a whole lot more, and I hope two lessons I’ve learned will be helpful to you

1. Stay in touch with people who are just starting out. They are the best guide for whether the book or the system is working the way it should. I stay in touch with beginners by reading and responding to blog comments; by actively soliciting questions from readers, which will come almost exclusively from beginners, and by running surveys designed to elicit responses from people about what obstacles they are running into, what’s keeping them from moving forward, and whether they found any part of a specific process or educational product confusing or incomplete.

2. Keep being a beginner. When I set out to learn new things, I’m thrown back into that newbie mindset: passionate but clueless. That’s incredibly valuable.

And a lot of it comes down to navigation, reassurance, the big picture. Knowing where confusion comes in, and putting up a sign there to help the traveler. Taking the time to really think through what people will need.


Joel Friedlander, who blogs about book design and the indie publishing life at TheBookDesigner.com, is an award-winning book designer; the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, a publishing services company in San Rafael, CA; and the author of A Self-Publisher’s Companion.

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