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The Oversimplification of Mark Hurst

In his latest “Good Experience” email, Mark offers a series of notes for successfully addressing what he refers to as “the page paradigm.” Unfortunately, he’s misguided as often as he’s on target.

Mark is basically correct when he states:

    - - - - - - - - - - The Page Paradigm - - - - - - - - - -
     |                                                       |
     |       On any given Web page, users will either...     |
     |                                                       |
     |   - click something that appears to take them closer  |
     |     to the fulfillment of their goal,                 |
     |                                                       |
     |   - or click the Back button on their Web browser.    |
     |                                                       |
     - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Unfortunately, this begs the question, “What is the user’s goal?”

Throughout the piece, Mark talks up goals — he even has a note devoted to capital-G “Goal.” That capital demonstrates his key shortcoming — Mark discourses as if you can design for a single user goal.,Yes, each user has a singular goal they are trying to achieve, however, each user’s singular goal is likely different from one another.

Mark points to a case study for the earphones section of as an exemplar of his approach.

I did a quick assessment of the site Mark points to, and I can say with no reservation that you should totally follow all of Mark’s suggestions when you’re designing a 26 page site. Which is how many pages comprise the Shure earphone site. (It gets a little over 50 if you include the Mobile Headset). For all of you out there designing sites with 50 pages, feel free to ignore consistency, breadcrumbs, and the notion of “where content should live.” And focus on the Goal, because there won’t be much more than one.

For those of you managing sites of more than 50 pages, heed Mark’s suggestions at your own risk. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on a site that had less than 1000 pages, and such sites require clear, coherent, and consistent navigation systems. Largely because this notion of “the Goal” doesn’t apply — many users have many different goals, and those goals will shift over time.

It’s just this uncertainty and complexity that drives information architects (a group that Mark maligns in his piece) to provide navigation systems with wayfinding cues and breadcrumbing. I actually agree with Mark that users “don’t care where they are” on a site — they care about where to go to achieve their current goal. However, in order for a single system to enable thousands of different users to achieve their hundreds of different goals, it needs navigation system to support this unknown range of desires.

How do you address something like “the Goal” on a site like (At last count, with tens of thousands of pages). First off, needs to support a wide range of users (prospective customers, current customers, partners, job-seekers, investors, analysts, press, etc.) Let’s say we’re going to focus just on prospective customers. Well, there are many different types of prospects — executives, directors, managers, developers. And because this is a big ticket item, sales cycles run for months, with a visitors’ goal evolving each time they return to the site. (And believe me — if someone is returning to your site, they value a consistent navigation scheme, and maybe even breadcrumbs, to help them return to where they had been.)

I won’t belabor the point any further. If you’re a small e-commerce site, yes, do what Mark tells you. If you’re not, then you might want to think twice. And I do agree Mark that, if you haven’t seen The Producers (by which I mean the original film), watch it.


  1. Gosh, there are sites out there with ONLY 1000 pages? It has been so long since I worked on a site with less than *100,000 * pages, I find it hard to relate to what Mark says too.

    The way you build a good experience is a lot different in the world I have been working in. I have to worry a lot about content management, corporate taxonomies, and organizational change. Sure, the end goal is the same: a good experience for the customer. But I feel more like an industrial/organizational pychologist than a user interface designer. The organization itself needs a new “information architecture” first before we can get the IA right on the site and build a good experience on top.

    Oh, the joys of being an innie within a large corporation…..

  2. While I don’t think you’re wrong about the shortcomings of the piece, Peter, I do think you overlook an important aspect of Mark’s point. Way too many folks design web sites as if the point were to use the web site itself. And of course, people visiting web sites almost never are there in order to “use” the web site. They are there because the site gives them a way to accomplish something else.

    That’s a very straightforward and simple point, yes. But it’s remarkable that so many companies (the ones Mark’s trying to reach) forget that when studying the performance of their site. They distract themselves from measuring, say, how many people actually registered, by getting caught up with wondering if anyone clicked on the breadcrumbs, as if clicking on the breadcrumbs were a good thing. They are fixating on whether or not people use this thing that they made, instead of worrying about how they are impacting people’s behavior (e.g., getting them to do more of something online instead of off, or getting them to less of one thing online and more of another). That’s just plain silly. And I think that’s what Mark is trying to point out.

  3. If that was all that he was trying to point out, then he could do so without impugning potentially helpful wayfinding systems. I agree that too many folks get obsessed with web design for web design’s sake, not taking into account the context in which this design must work. Also, I continue to be amazed at the degree to which “content” is treated like some kind of commodity material, to be shoveled into a design once the design is done. The only reason people are coming to your site is for the content/functionality — it should be more than an afterthought.

    All that said, Mark’s argument ends up being flip and facile, an effort to grab attention without addressing some of the very real complexities at stake.

  4. About “the goal”… I don’t know entirely how you identify and address the myriad goals of a large number of users interacting with a site with tens of thousands of nodes, but my impression from a systems perspective is that you can try to do a little bit of educated guessing and suggesting by understanding what they’re currently looking at and how it relates to similar items. But the suggesting is more along the lines of addressing the question “where can I go from here” rather than “where am I?”

    I agree with what John says above and I find your point about wayfinding valuable — there needn’t be an attack of wayfinding cues and exposing information organization in order to suggest that focus on user goals is paramount.

  5. The real problem is not the number of pages but the complexity of the subject matter. Our site is not huge but it is complex. We do our best to organize our content to fit the mental model of our users but we must back that up with a consistent navigation system to help people recover from navigational errors and to teach them associations and connections that they may not have made on their own.

  6. You guys are so cool working on sites with 100,000 pages oh my!! has 100,000 pages but it really only has 3: home, category home and article. A home page is really a 1 page site when it comes to goals. Lots od sites are really collections of 50 page sites, each of which could learn from Mark.

    The number of pages in your site is really not impressive at all. More impressive these days is the right number of pages which is normally less than one would think.

  7. I agree with what pb just said above. I’ve never worked on a site that hasn’t been dynamically generated from page templates, and I can’t imagine ever needing to use more than a few such things. I thought that that was what Information Architecture was all about – factoring the user experience into a manageable set of page templates. But, don’t let me stir things up – you both have good ideas 🙂

  8. To some degree, pb is right: we don’t want to overcomplexify the situation. But PB is misguided in that s/he is confusing form with content. While all articles use the same page template (form), they’re not all about the same stuff (content). If I’m looking for a particular kind of news, I don’t want to click a navigation tab that reads “Articles” and then start scrolling. I want there to be some classification that allows me to find the pertinent information.
    Also, on an article page, I might have more than one goal. If I’m a regular reader, my goal would then be to see what else was written that day. If I’m a researcher, my goal would be to see what else had been written on that topic.

  9. There is a reason breadcrumbs are called “breadcrumbs”. If you’re walking through the woods and you’re dropping breadcrumbs as you go, you’re not dropping them with the hope of needing to use them. You’re dropping them because although you have a perfectly useful map and a predetermined goal, you just might get lost along the way.

    Make a wrong turn somewhere? Follow your breadcrumbs back a little. Decide you want to check out something else in the woods that is near a landmark you’ve already passed? Follow your crumbs to the landmark and explore from there. That’s the point of breadcrumbs.

    Let’s follow the metaphor through to a typical web experience. I’m at the front page of a clothing site like Eddie Bauer. There is a flashing promotion for gift specials so I click on it. I’m at a page listing gifts. Then I click a hat. Then I click a certain size of hat to make sure they have the size I need. They don’t have it. I now need to look for another hat. So instead of clicking the back button a few times and starting over completely, I can look up at this sort of breadcrumb:

    Men’s > Clothing > Hats > Sizes

    … and just click Hats.

    That’s a lot easier. I agree that you should always try to provide contextual links like “Need another hat?” because they are often more obvious than other cues, but for how little screen space a breadcrumb takes up, I think it’s well worth it to put it in there.

    Mike D.

  10. “overcomplexify” – Is that even a word, Peter?

    “complicate” would have worked fine in its place.

  11. I agree with Peter’s reservations, and also agree with the particular focus that Mark is drawing on – if not with some of the simplification. I’m not sure that the two points of view need necessarily be at odds, either.
    The important point that comes from each viewpoint is that specific user tasks need to be supported. Mark H’s attack on wayfinding is perhaps misplaced as one of these tasks might simply be “finding my way around X site”. People use the Web for information gathering on a specific point, transaction completion, and less structured information gathering among other task groups – all these activities should be underpinned by a focus on clear and concise navigation and information design. Essentially users need to be able to see the wood for the trees.

  12. Well, I’m glad Peter decided to comment on this article. And it’s nice to see everyone taking a balanced perspective and looking at the relative merits of the article.

    However, I must say that it made me cringe a bit, to have Mr. Hurst come down from the mountain and proclaim that content organization, navigation and consistency are a fool’s errand. I also remain skeptical that his mystical, distillable single goal matches the real-world use patterns of many websites.

    Even watching my wife (a fairly average web user) visit is enough to demonstrate that average users on relatively simple sites may have a mix of goals, some of which are as general as “browsing”.

    Does he make some valid points? Probably, within certain contexts. However, when I hear such extreme claims made without any hint of qualification or contextualization, I can’t help but wonder if their author is attempting to use shock value and controversy for self-promotion.

    And I pity the poor Information Architect whose naive manager has just found an article from a reputable source telling him that consistent navigation and content organization are a waste of time and budget. Do we really need this kind of sensationalism? Is this really constructive? Is the web mature enough overall that it’s time to stop valuing structure and navigability?

    Not in my humble opinion. But perhaps I should spend a little time up on that mountain, myself…

  13. Keep in mind, too, that every page is often a world unto itself as far as search engines are concerned.

    The trend these days is that it costs money to submit pages (per page fees), and with Yahoo!’s new Site Match submission process, everytime someone clicks on a page there is cost per click fee as well.

    Breadcrumbs provide links for robots to follow. To get the most bang out of the buck, people will want to submit pages that not only drive interest, traffic and sales but attract robots to crawl deeper into the site and possibly add more pages to the engine database.

    If you’re going to pay for a high position in SERPS, the goal now includes persuading people to enter top hubs from the page (usually the homepage.) Should the page be drab, with labels that say little about what they’ll find, visitors may leave, but the website owner still has to pay for that click – productive or not.

    If the bottom line is to get a return on one’s investment, every link is critical. Even breadcrumbs or other forms of drilldown navigation. Keep the user and SE robot intrigued and browsing, directed, goal oriented and confident.

  14. This is a new one (Feb 16th 04) cycled back from something guru Jakob Nielsen said a few years back with the effect that navigation was “overdone” on many sites. In the new version, we are told “consistency is NOT necessary”, and does not apply to websites. Outside of falling down on the floor with laughter, the problem here is that while users don’t appear to be consciously concerned with navigation, their unconscious behavior indicates otherwise. A simple fact that every seasoned usability practitioner knows is that consistency increases ease of use (whatever the medium). Again, the prescription references the insights to “listening labs” (a reframed usability testing lab with questionable methodology of it’s own).

    Skilled observation by professionals that understand consumer cognition can go a long way to prevent sweeping generalizations about user behavior. For more on the topic of understanding unconscious customer behavior, see Gerald Zaltman’s new book How Customer Think, where research shows physiological evidence of consumer behavior using brain scans.

    (excerpt from Frank Spillers weblog entry “Methodology Madness” at

  15. The page paradigm thesis is a nice demonstrations of oversimplified reasoning. The navigation is extremely important. Too frequently a user finds a promising page with several branches, choose one branch, then another crossroad and another … You definitely need means for quickly returning to the last useful place you have been, the back button itself is not sufficient. Not mentioning the SERPS mentioned by Kim Krause.

Comments are closed.


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