Tuesday, September 4, 2012

I can't find an essay on my computer.

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Authoring principles and practices Navigation in Educational Web Sites

Introduction

As more and more students go online and spend more time on the Internet (Pastore, 001) [summary], web site navigation has become more important in helping students find information for their studies. This paper details navigational design techniques that help web site designers make their navigation more user-friendly, especially for educational users, such as university students and researchers.



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The Purposes of Navigation

Krug (000, p.5) [summary] outlines these as firstly, telling users how to find information, for example by offering menus and search functions, and secondly, helping users to understand their location in the site by using page titles, breadcrumbs, colour coding etc. Thirdly, navigation gives users an overview of the site’s content, for example through site maps and the text of the menus. Finally, navigation shows users how to use the site if the site requires some kind of process, such as registration or login, for example as in WebCT.





Standard Navigational Components

These are usually available as links on the home page. The logo of the organisation identifies the site and is usually visible on most pages. The logo can help to assert the authoritativeness of this source of information, which is especially important to students as the Internet contains many pages that are not quality controlled by independent editors (Schroeder 001) [summary]. Outside the home page the logo is often a clickable link to home. Although many users are now familiar with this convention, it may help new users if the logo looks clickable, for example if it is on a button, or if an explanation pops up when the mouse is placed over it. Users expect the logo to be positioned in the top left corner of the page (Bernard, 001a) [summary].

Home pages should also give a site description or ‘tag line’, informing the user of what they can do on the site (Nielsen, 001a; Krug 000, pp. 101 - 10) [summary], which helps students estimate whether they will find information on the topic for which they are searching. The home page should also provide various links to enable the user to access this information. Krug (000, p.65) [paraphrase] categorises such home page links into ‘sections’ and ‘utilities’. The sections include links to categories of content, for example teachers’ presentations, and lists of useful links. The utilities may include an ‘About Us’ section, often including staff and organisation contact details, a ‘What’s New’ page, a site map and a frequently-asked questions page.



Search

The ability to search within a site is especially important for educational users. For example, if a student or researcher knows that an online journal covers a topic of interest, he or she will need to search within that site for specific information.

Nielsen (001b) [summary] emphasises the importance of site search facilities as a both a tool for finding information, and an escape route if users get lost. He recommends that there be a Search facility on the home page, and also on every page. This is often in a menu bar or at the top of the page.

The results page giving the results of the search can follow the example of the Google search engine (Google, 001), and have the following components the search terms used, a link to advanced search in case the search was unsuccessful and links to other search resources. Each link on the results page at Google includes the relevance of the page, the page title, the URL, the contents of the meta tag ‘description’, extracts from the text of the page with the search terms highlighted, a cached version in case of the page no longer exists or the server is unavailable, and a ‘More like this’ link. It may also be possible to include a list of bookmarks on the page, so that users can go directly to relevant sections of a page.

Hoffman (17) [summary] makes a number of recommendations about optimising the information in the head markup of a page for search engines to use to provide users with an overview of the contents of the page. He highlights the use of the meta tag, especially for keywords, and the use of the title tag. Another method of providing more meta information is to use the Dublin Core system.

The combination of proper meta-tagging and informative search engines should help lead students quickly to relevant sources.



Menu bars

The second main way to navigate a web site is through menus (Krug, 000, p.55) [summary]. Sites have menu bars in various positions (Bernard 001a) [summary] , with different components in different places. At the top of the page common components are the name of the site, breadcrumbs, search, and tabbed section pages (Krug 000, p.61) [summary]. On the left are often site sections, which on educational sites can serve as categorisation not only of the site, but also of the academic field. On the right are found further links related to content, although Bernard (001b) [summary] states that users prefer embedded links. Hoffman (17) [paraphrase], however, suggests the use of menus and criticises these embedded hyperlinks, presenting a number of arguments against them. These include that conscious choices add up to conscious overhead and distractedness; that embedding hyperlinks within prose paragraphs makes for rough reading and slow navigation; that excessive branching disintegrates structure and reduces the ability to build a mental model, and that there are already enough navigation choices to overload the readers attention.

Neilsen (16 & 000, p.84) [summary] criticises the use of frames, which often contain menus, for example stating that they make bookmarking a page impossible. Bookmarking is especially important in education, as learners record sites in their literature search, and then go back to them to cite in their academic writing.

Menus in frames can be replaced by server-side includes or javascript .js files, which can be dynamically positioned to remain in place on screen with JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets. For an example see the left menu on the Centre for Independent Language site at http//elc.polyu.edu.hk/cill/ .



Indexes

Various types of index to the contents of a site are possible (Hoffman 17) [summary]. For example, a educational site on the topic of history might include alphabetical indexes of events and people, timelines, a site map and galleries of images of people and places. In Bernard’s (1) [quotation] study of site maps, his subjects said that they preferred categorised to alphabetically-organised maps because they may have to guess the wording of the hyperlink name in order to search in the appropriate area. This may be more important on educational web sites, where learners may be unfamiliar with the terminology of the field, and especially important for non-native speaker students.



User-centredness

As well as being unfamiliar with the terminology of the field, learners may be unsure of the categorisation of contents of a field, for example, whether pronunciation is a sub-category of speaking, or a main category of equivalent level. Information & Design Pty Ltd [summary] suggest card sorting by representative users in order to reflect the learners’ rather than the experts’ categorisations.

Cookies and logging-in can help in the user-centredness of pages by personalisation. WebCT, for example, tracks usage by students, and shows users what information they have already seen. Commercial sites such as Amazon.com provide personalised services such as ‘one-click-ordering’ and book recommendations based on personalisation techniques. Navigation is made easier by the site presenting the user with information and links that its records show is relevant to them. For example, researchers can instruct Amazon.com to alert them if certain authors publish new books.



Links

Hyperlinks are one of the primary navigation methods on web sites. There are a number of guidelines on the usability of links (Krug, 000 & Nielsen, 000) [summary] . Firstly, they should look click-able before mouse-over (Krug 000, p.7) [summary] . Many designers turn off link underlining or image borders for aesthetic reasons, but Nielsen (000, p.15) recommends using underlining and standard link colours [summary] .

Nielsen (000, pp. 188 - 60) [summary] makes a number of recommendations for links. These include that they should be self-explanatory, or have an explanatory blurb in the text or in a title tag (Nielsen, 000, p,60), should lead to useful content, should have the same text as the page title or heading they are linked to, and that there shouldn’t be too many on one page for aesthetic and cognitive overload reasons (Hoffman, 17) [summary] .

Lastly, links should be big enough to hit with a dirty, sticky mouse. In education, computers are often a shared resource in a computer lab and the mice sometimes get dirty. Fitt’s Law states that the time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target (Tognazzini, 1) [summary] , and therefore bigger links are easier and faster to click.



Images

Images are used on the Internet not only to convey pictorial information, but also to overcome the limitations of HTML in controlling the appearance of text. Images containing text are often used in menus and image maps as part of the navigation controls of a site. As images these take longer to download than text, thus making the navigation slower to appear. In educational settings it is especially important to have small image file sizes so that images download faster. This is because a whole class might access the same page at the same time, and lesson time is wasted if the download is not fast. Selvidge’s (1) [quotation] study of the download time issue concludes that The longer the wait for pages to load, the greater the frustration. Nielsen (000, p.4) [summary] recommends that page download time should be less than one second, but a realistic target is less than 10 seconds. To speed image downloads, Larsen and Phillips (001) [summary] recommend the use of small thumbnail images, reducing the number of colours in .gif format images, cropping image size, and using the right format, .gif, or .jpg.

However, there is evidence that download speed might not be as important as previously thought, Rhodes (001) quotes Jared Spool, Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering, a research company, as saying, it was almost a law of nature that the faster pages download, the more usable the site was. But when we actually compared the usability of sites to their download times, we didnt see any correlations. He explains this as follows,

To go farther, we found that when we asked users to rate the speed of a site, that didnt correlate to the actual download time either. Instead, the perceived speed of the site correlated strongly to whether they completed their tasks! This tells us that, when users are complaining about download time, they probably arent actually talking about the download time, but about their ability to complete tasks.

(Rhodes, 001). [long quotation]

There is further evidence from Selvidge (1) [quotation] that download times may not need to be as fast as Nielsen advocates, and says that Lostness and task difficulty were not affected by delay length and that Users were frustrated by the 0 and 60 second delays in page loading time, but would tolerate the 0 second delays. Whether this is true in educational settings is a topic for further research.

One way to decrease the time taken to download images is to reduce the number of images on a page (Nielsen, 000, p.14) [summary]. Some pages use image maps and images containing text. Unless server logs show that users’ browsers are unable to handle them, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) can be used to control the appearance of text, reducing the need to use images. CSS can also be used to control the appearance of buttons, for example, their widths and colours, reducing the need for graphics that look like buttons (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 000) [summary] .

To improve accessibility to educational resources for all learners, all images should have ALT tags describing the image, especially if the image is a hyperlink. The World-wide Web Consortium (WC, 001) gives this and more accessibility advice on its Quick Tips page. Image hyperlinks should link to a page, not just to another image, and have captions containing text links, as demonstrated by Castro (000, p.145) [summary].



Conclusion

In informal conversations with my students about researching information on the Internet, a common complaint is that while the Internet is very convenient for research, it can take a long time to find relevant materials. This highlights the need for good navigation, and especially good search results.

Present research into navigation tends to concentrate on general or e-commerce users. Therefore, more research into navigation in the educational context, and especially into navigation for non-native speakers, is needed. ff

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