I’ve just read the latest from one of the founders of the information architecture discipline. If you know O’Reilly’s famous “polar bear book” on IA, then you know one of its authors, Peter Morville, who has been an active force in the IA world for over 20 years. Morville has many interesting things to say about our places made of information, not the least of which is how important culture is in determining our response to said environments.

Peter Morville's new book.
Peter Morville’s new book.

With Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything, he’s at it again. There are so many large, complicated items to grapple with here. So instead of tackling one of those, I’ll call out a simple, straightforward nugget of gold Morville mines that all designers would do well to remember: Always allow multiple ways in.

I know in my own work on taxonomies, site navigation, and menu structure, there is a temptation to want to “get it perfect” and come up with the ONE TRUE WAY. The belief here is that a) there is ONE TRUE WAY; and b) with enough research and work, we can discover it.

But Morville says don’t bother with this approach. People are different, and it’s impossible to come up with a single orientation that will work for everyone. Instead, we should always allow multiple simultaneous ways in to our information structures. Like a crowd entering a busy train station from all sides and doors, our audience may be coming at our interfaces from diverse mental, physical, and metaphorical angles. So we should set up prepared for all comers.

Most digital experts are familiar with the hamburger menu entry point. But what about everyone else? If the only way in to your site is beneath a top level burger click, and someone misses that, you could have problems.

If you don't know what that hamburger in the upper left is, it could be hard to figure out what you can do here.
If you don’t know what that hamburger in the upper left is, it could be hard to figure out what you can do here.

A better approach, though not one that always works on smaller screens, is to explicitly show the user your main navigation structure.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.55.32 AM

One thing I like to do on my own sites is always provide a redundant, duplicate list of links to the nav structure in the footer – whatever main menu style I may be using above. This way, even if the site uses a hamburger on top, when the user scrolls down there’s a backup in place for discovering the navigation. The same style works with a sidebar as well.

Adding some explicit links in the footer is both a good backup and convenient on layouts where the main menu on top scrolls out of view.
Adding some explicit links in the footer is both a good backup and convenient on layouts where the main menu on top scrolls out of view.

Another way to make sure your users don’t miss key nav and site structure is to directly embed links in content they’ll read.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 11.31.07 AM

One more effective backstop is the standard tag or category cloud, which is a good way of showing people the kinds of information and content they can find.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 11.16.18 AM

If you’re reading this blog post, chances are all of these different ways of providing access to your content are familiar. Pretty standard stuff, right? Morville’s key point, and the one that turned on a light bulb for me, is to use several or all of them throughout your site. Don’t try to figure out which is the ONE TRUE WAY. Use them all.

Make it easy and assume up front that your audience, like the rush hour crowd in Grand Central, will be coming at you from multiple angles with different priorities and attention spans.

Always allow multiple ways in to your information.

PHOTO: The daily crush surges through Grand Central Station, New York.

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