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Sample of the Navigation Structure on the National Public Radio (NPR) website.

Uncommon “Relational” Navigation

Each row in the image above shows the navigation generally as it appears on a page. The red line indicates which link was clicked and the following page’s navigation.

Notice the that Business and Technology appear numerous times. A very possible user path through the NPR website, which I discovered while researching their category structure, might go:

news > business > technology > digital life > technology > digital life > technology > digital life > technology > etc…

Technology contains Digital Life and Business; but Digital Life also contains Technology. Also, Business contains Technology as well as several other labels. It’s a highly relative style of navigation.

What do I mean by relative navigation? The navigation in these sections of the website are organized specifically around whatever page you’re on. They only present labels to other pages that may be directly related, in the same way that eCommerce sites display related products.

I’m calling this Relational Navigation.

Several Levels of Hidden Links

Most of these navigation labels also do not feature drop downs. This means that sometimes several levels of links are hidden from view.

This means you basically need a trail and error approach to navigating the website.

You might never know about the Digital Life section, but if you found it by chance and ever wanted to return, you would have to click through following links: Business > Technology > Digital Life, but you would not be able to navigate here directly.

Designing for Serendipity?

Decreasing one’s ability to navigate ‘long distances’ across a website, while introducing this relational navigation seems likely to result in ‘getting lost” on the NPR website.

In the best case, it could perhaps result in some kind of serendipitous discovery? Are they designing for serendipity?

Against Design Homogeneity

User researchers often advocate for user research by saying that it’s likely to produce surprising results. And yet, the internet increasingly looks self similar and notoriously moves towards design homogeneity.

While we might assume most people aren’t doing any significant user research (tree testing, card sorting, task analysis) it would seem that we should still  find large sites emerge with unusual features or functions, right?

In this sense, part of me wants to believe this is a feature, not a bug.

Perverse Incentives

What if they were designing for distraction? It seems plausible they were aiming to increase “pages per visit,” and possibly other metrics like “time on site,” and “number of active visitors per week.” 

In this sense, I wonder if these changes reflect Goodhart’s law? Here’s a few ways to articulate the observation:

1. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

2. Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.

3. All metrics of scientific evaluation are bound to be abused. Goodhart’s law (named after the British economist who may have been the first to announce it) states that when a feature of the economy is picked as an indicator of the economy, then it inexorably ceases to function as that indicator because people start to game it.

source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart%27s_law

If the user experience suffered from the website changes implemented to increase certain metrics, this could be a fine example of Goodhart’s law in action.