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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ribbon Navigation: A New Kind of Website Navigation?

Ribbon navigation is something cool. I first found out about it when I was looking around for different ways to solve a local navigation problem on a corporate website that I work on.

For those who don't know, ribbon navigation is the big change in the Office 2007 interface. Adaptive Path as a great interview with Jensen Harris about how Microsoft developed the ribbon interface. Although James Kalbach sees ribbon navigation online as mainly a variation on tabbed site maps, I wasn't so sure. It seems to me that what is new and distinct with ribbon navigation is the visual elements that are included.

Harris calls the ribbon a product of "results orientated design" and goes on to explain that people want to see what they are going to get before they get it, rather than just ask for something and hope it's right. Because of this, the ribbon seeks to give space to more graphics and visualizations, not just text lists. Component Art has an outstanding ribbon navigation component for this very reason.

One difference between navigation in a rich application like Word 2007 and a website is that you are doing a lot less editing and styling when reading a website than you are when you create a Word document. In fact, the two applications have very little in common other than the fact that people interact with both.

However, there is a deeper premise at work here that brings them together. It's the same thing that Xerox capitalized on way back in the 70s--people find visual interaction way easier than command line interaction. Modern computing would never have become as popular as it is today had the graphical user interface not been discovered. And this is what web implementations of ribbon navigation do--they essentially take text information and reorganize it to give more room for graphical elements that make a lot of sense to people. Not a lot new, but it is cooler.

Previously, I'd described 5 types of website navigation. The question to me was, does ribbon navigation constitute a sixth type of navigation? After thinking about it for a while, I have to say that no it doesn't. Ribbon navigation is simply an upgrade variation of directory style navigation. Ribbons don't take things out of a hierarchical context. They don't adaptively learn or dynamically organize. They are static representations of logical content organization. But what it does bring into the mix is an emphasis on the visual and a higher level of aesthetics that are often sorely neglected in directory style navigation.

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