Categorisation and movement — the future of menus

Should we stop making menus?

IAs organise and describe to try to increase the chances of people finding their way around and finding their way to the information they want. When I used to help build websites I organised pages into progressively specific categories. Then I labelled the categories. People navigated the websites I architected using strips of labels that stood for categories. I limited myself to around 7 items at each level (+/- 2 because I slightly misunderstood something I read once).

Menus contain and communicate information. They describe the categorisation and structures that I create. They also described the position of the user in that structure. Active states for menu items support orientation. Each menu can act like one of those tourist maps with an arrow that marked — “You are here”.

But they also hold the functionality to transport you to somewhere else in the structure. At least, that’s how I always used to think about it.

I architected a digital environment and the menu was the final stage of me locking it in stone, solidifying it. Then, some years ago I got frightened. I stumbled on another metaphor for what happens when you click a link in a menu (or any sort of link). What if the user stays where they are, and the world moves around them? What if I’d been thinking about “places” and “movement” wrong? What if experiences really were “user-centred” and it wasn’t just rhetoric.

Menus were like safety rails that stood at the top of the page (sometimes the side) and gave the users two things — information and control. But with increasing amounts of content can menus communicate useful information without oversimplification? And should we encourage metaphors of movement within stable structures to static resources? Is there a more personalised and empowering type of navigation to be offered to audiences?

Movement

I don’t think I’d been wrong. I think the early places I made were like inverted pyramids — full of documents and artefacts waiting to be found.

I created information architectures for supermarkets, universities, retailers and charities. And when I reflect back on the things I made I realise that I thought of it as publishing. I was making “books,” where I set the chapters and allowed organisations to add in pages. In fact, thinking back, that might be the reason for one of my most-common complaints of my time working like that. I’d create these static structures, based on logic, business and user needs. Everyone on the project would buy into the rationale. I’d then return to the site 6 months after launch. I’d find pages in the “wrong” chapters. Menus would have become crowded with new sections that didn’t match the logic that I thought I’d established.

IA shares DNA with library sciences. I’d always thought of the practice, at least metaphorically, as making books — or categorising and building libraries — pages, books or shelves to contain things. I thought of the places as fixed. I thought of underlying logic governing their organisation and use. I believed ‘users’ intuitively knew or discovered that logic as they moved through the structure.

If there’s a criticism to be levelled at past Dan I’d argue that the places that I used to make were coherent, connected and efficient. But they weren’t resilient enough to last long in the real world. Throw too much content at them and they became confusing. Imagine printing out Wikipedia — imagine the pages, books and shelves.

Then I joined the BBC as an information architect and discovered we had 1,500 “pages” to organise every day. 1,500 pages or places, added daily to a total that Google reports as 12,000,000. Of course, Google hasn’t counted them all — it’s used robots or spiders to crawl the web and try to make sense of it.

It feels to me that people don’t move through the web in the same way they do a book or a library. Back in 2013 I was talking about the differences between walls and ladders. And I once said that the places I make are more like Hogwarts than Hampton Court — they’re ordered, but adaptive. And when I get the architecture right they feel a little magical — it should feel like my audience can summon a door in front of them at any moment and find exactly what they need.

How do you build ‘movement’ or retrieval into places that have become bigger and more complex? Is personalisation more effective than the ‘lowest common denominator’ categorisation and menus of the past?

Lowest common denominator categorisation

Lowest common denominator is often used as a pejorative. But simplifying something to appeal to a broader range of people is quite often the job of the IA. Except for specialised sites or services, and definitely in the case of the BBC, universality is a useful ambition.

The things I architect should be understandable by a broad audience. When I organise a digital place I try to break down content into a meaningful and manageable set of groups. Some of this organisation will inform the menu. As I break down the domain and the content it will contain I need to achieve two things. My groups should be:

Collectively exhaustive — I need to make sure that my categorisation covers everything. If I’m grouping things into categories then I can’t have uncategorised items. And a ‘Miscellaneous’ or ‘Other’ category is just plain cheating ;-)

Mutually exclusive — I need to make sure the groupings don’t overlap. If for example something could live in two places, I’d be leaving it up to the user to decide which one I have chosen (assuming things only live in one place — which is sort of the point I’m coming to).

I’ve always subscribed to those rules. But today I’m wavering. What if ‘mutual exclusivity’ isn’t as important as I thought it was. In a physical environment a page in a book can only have one number. But hyperlinking and transclusion (including one document in another) is why digital information sources are often more useful than rigid and fixed “real world” alternatives. If the “page” comes to you, does it matter where it started? The spatial relationships and the information we’re conveying change depending on the metaphor for movement.

Should we stop making menus?

Are menus and navigation just a remnant of the Contents page at the front of a book? They describe the static locations of the information that the resource contains. And sure, they’re a bit fancier. They persist through the environment (most often) giving you a shortcut back and forward. But they lock in the reductive logic of organisation based on those old rules of categories being exhaustive and exclusive — and pages being fixed in their location.

Is there something fundamentally limiting about this type of navigation? Are we missing a trick with what technologies can now achieve? Mutual exclusivity commits me to a lowest common denominator in menus and ‘global’, persistent navigation. I have to provide the same coarse manageable and navigable categorisation for everyone. I need to force content creators and audience members to adopt the same perspective and priorities. It feels like I should be more ambitious.

I don’t know if that means the end of menus. Perhaps it means flatter structures and more dynamic elements to communicate structure and orient a user within it. I’m pretty certain that funnels and ‘inverted pyramids’ do not work for the challenges I currently face — 1,500 new items of content and near universal reach.

But I do worry that lowest common denominator is not always a pejorative. Stable, static structures are reliable and predictable. They’re also more shareable. What happens when my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feed are highly personalised? Where does anything live anymore?

Menus enforce constraints and encourage a certain way of thinking about an environment. I suspect they encourage people to think they are moving around a fixed environment. Maybe I want to encourage a different set of thoughts about movement. And menus limit and affect the information I can convey. I wonder whether there is a better way of delivering these things to our audience. This year I’ll be trying to answer some of these questions. And if you have answers or want to get involved — get in touch.

I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)