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Replacing Website Menus with a combination of Thumbnails and Tags?

Hey everyone!

One other question...while I'm on a roll today.  One idea I've had kicking around in my mind the past two months is to try and develop a web presence that used a "Google.com" model in its presentation of matching results to end users.  Asking visitors "what are you looking for?" or "what would you like to know?" and then as they enter keywords or search phrases, have a series of ~2,100 "thumbnails" (different pages of content) being quickly whittled down to 5-10 potential matches that they can then choose from.

A VERY rough, quick mock-up of the concept is attached as a .pdf.  For example, someone types in "campus map" into the search field, and all pages (thumbnails) that do NOT match said tags or search criteria would be removed from the collection of thumbnails beneath the search field.  Someone then adds "Texas" to "campus map" in said search field, and the display of matching thumbnails (pages) is whittled down even more.  To the point where someone eventually is left with a very small, manageable collection of pages from which to choose from.

I've thought that Google gets it right in this regard...getting people to content that interests them very quickly.  Only I want to display rows of thumbnails in "real time" beneath the search field, rather than having to require people to hit Enter to have matching results displayed as one vertical row of text.  Has anyone seen any good examples of this being done that you might refer me to?  And also, do you think this might be an interesting way to display college/university site content...rather than traditional menus?

Any thoughts/feedback/suggestions would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks!  - Derek

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Hi Derek,

This is an interesting concept, though I have never seen anything like it implemented, it does remind me of the use of facets in Apache SOLR search implementations, but with a more highly visual interface than is typically used.

I would tend to consider it as a search alternative rather than a menu replacement, as I think hierarchy gives context to information in a way that is still useful when one is exploring a topic, rather than targeting in on a specific fact or page. Basically there are users who will find one or the other meets their needs, so I'd want them to have access to both.

Of course if you base it on a structured tagging taxomony, the hierarchy is still there to some extent... What are your thoughts on hierarchy in ordering information? Is it useful or not-so-much, for your users?

Thanks for the reply, Daniel.

I guess in my experience, which is probably different than most site developers/managers, due to our very particular subject matter, hierarchy as it related to menus seems to not be nearly as useful to many/most of our website users.

I track our website analytics nightly (I'm a numbers geek/wonk...plus I like seeing who was looking at what, what content is trending up/down in popularity, etc.).  And related to our website, the VAST majority of the traffic is people who find us via google/bing/yahoo/________ searches where they are coming to us looking for one VERY specific thing:  a specific piece of information, a specific page or image, etc.  They get to what they want, and then they're gone as quickly as they came.  The only people who really "mill around" and look at dozens/hundreds of pages are the people who are interested in browsing a particular category.  i.e. "3D vector campus maps."  They might look at 40-50+ examples in one site visit!  But they get to those samples via one main portal/page...which google/bing/yahoo/________ lead them to.

After 3+ years of watching our site analytics, it seems like a Google/Bing type of interface, asking visitors "what would you like to know?" and then having thumbnails with links to relevant ("tagged") pages would serve our users much more efficiently/effectively.  For example, sometimes people who are searching our site might not know what "vector" means.  But they know they want a map drawn in "Adobe Illustrator," or that they want a "bird's eye map" (don't refer to it as "3D perspective").  Letting them type in their terms to describe what they are looking for (even in their own language besides English), then quickly having the resulting matching pages be displayed as thumbnailed tiles beneath their search criteria, would not only get people to the content they want more quickly!  But might help them stumble on to content that is relevant that they might not otherwise have discovered.

Our website is VERY image-heavy.  ~1,200+ pages and over 8,000 maps that people can view (so far)!  Trying to find "campus maps that we've drawn in Kentucky" (as one example of a common type of question we get) is a nearly impossible, frustrating task for people to locate without calling me for help.  And if I can help people get to the content they want, not forcing them to use the one hierarchy/tree (menu) that I/we think is the most efficient or logical, it would seem to be a superior user-centered design technique.

The larger question, then, is could colleges and universities benefit from more of a similar approach to serving constituent needs?  And if yes, since nobody probably cares about little 'ol me...a former 8+ year higher ed employee who went "corporate" back in 2000, :-D ...how might one go about building it?

I have all the content developed.  I have most of the ~2,000+ thumbnails created and optimized.  I just don't quite know how to code it in a way that would work on both "desktop" and portable/handheld devices.  I thought of abandoning a CSS menu altogether since there are so many problems with a:hover on tablets...and a site as big/deep as ours would struggle from not having sub-sub+ layers beneath main menu categories.  But I can't "cut that cord" until I figure out some of the "tech" behind building my mock-up.

Sorry for another novel!  But maybe that helps to answer your questions?

Hm... It seems to me that your idea works very well in a constrained domain, especially a visual one like a maps database. It seems a lot like a drill-down through a tagging system rather than conventional search -- or at least it seems like it could easily be rationalized to such an extent that a tagging taxonomy can handle the drill-down, with no free-text search needed.

The real-time responsiveness you are after seems to me the kind of thing that custom web apps developed in Ruby on Rails and similar coding frameworks often handle very well. Are you looking to use a particular technology for compatibility or other reasons, or are you considering starting from scratch with a best-fit technology for this particular purpose?

Not being a programmer, I don't have strong views on what it would best be built in, and would be really interested in hearing what others have to say on the subject.

Cheers, Dan

Thanks again for the reply, Dan!

I'm mainly just trying to have our site best "fit" our constituents related to user-centered design.  Design and deliver content the way that people desire to get to their content of interest, as efficiently as possible.  Done as a responsive design...since not only are the nav menus not intuitive for everyone (i.e. I've heard 10-12 different names people use, in English, to refer to only one style of map illustration...and we offer dozens of potential map illustration services), but right now that nav doesn't even work on tablets and phones due to :hover.

That's 95% of the reasoning behind my investigating this type of change.  The remaining 5%?  Vanity, I suppose.  :-)  Most of the people who do what we do for a living are still "stuck" in more of a 1990s/print mindset and/or never get much beyond .jpgs and .pdfs kicked out of GIS/CAD programs and prettied-up a bit in Adobe Illustrator...when it comes to electronic/interactive.  So us moving to more of a VISUAL/tagged search and responsive design would really raise the bar for our little cottage industry (serving higher ed).  And maybe that would be enough of a kick in the pants to drag a few others forward with us.  Benefiting universities across the continent/planet who use and depend upon our services.

You might be interested in this article: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/09/10/ozarks-technical-comm...

I think it's a really neat way to organize a website, but its a little too outside of the box to really catch on with most institutions.

Thanks for sharing, Thomas!

If only their search results were a little more "sexy."  The information is solid (and I've obviously tipped my hand in liking the radical "K.I.S.S." approach to developing a highly targeted/customized portal for site visitors).  But the search results page just isn't elegant at all, IMHO.  If that were fixed?  I'd love it.  Plus I love the fact that they've also left in a "view full website" option for people whose minds would be too blown via the radical departure to the norm.  Smart AND safe from an end-user standpoint.  :-)

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