Sunday, October 09, 2005

Idiotic Mystery Meat Navigation

I’ve been browsing the web for almost ten years (late 1996) and this has to be single most consistently annoying user interface problem I’ve seen (well, this and frames).

We all have seen it. Little dots, squares, or unrecognizable icons that go WHERE in the website? We don’t know--unless we move our mouse over it for the text to reveal the destination. The biggest irony is, of course, that these same marketing sites that evangelize customer experience as the next big thing in branding don’t care about the extra cognitive and mouse moving steps their users have to take so that they can be minimal in their visual design. This is form over function.

The saddest part is websites that use Mystery Meat Navigation win design awards as if visual design was more important than usability or information design. (My guess would that these judges have worked on print for most of their life). We can compare interactive to paper. I dare anyone to print out a web page with Mystery Meat Navigation and tell me how to get somewhere. Or what if the table of contents were little shapes that you touch with your finger to view.

I can’t believe that I taught a seminar back in high school on the snares of Mystery Meat Navigation, and the problem still exists today. Thankfully, the CSS/DIV tag duo has come to the aid of many interactive users by enabling mouseovers to reach their full potential instead of solely controlling image swaps.

Descriptive photographs are often fine for navigation, especially for portfolio entries at marketing firms--after all these are often ads (or read branding) that are touch points and should be visual appealing. Intelligible icons make sense also (email, phone, fax, the firm’s logo in order to return to the home page).

While I was writing this article, I stumbled onto Leo Burnett (a Publicis Co.) that uses Mystery Meat Navigation, but they also have a menu-based navigation, thankfully. The pencil motif is nice. It took a few seconds though to find out how to return to the last viewed screen (hint: click anywhere else except the piece you are viewing).

In closing: The Road Sign Idea

I have a marvelous idea! We should help clear all this text clutter on our road signs. The government should give little remotes (much like mice) to every driver and tell him or her that he or she should point to each sign to see if it’s the place to turn off. If that worked, we could do the same to billboards. I think our clients would be very happy if we hid their billboards and their web banners, too, until the user waved his or her mouse in its direction.

--Stephen M. James

The term "Mystery Meat Navigation" and the road sign idea come from an article written in the late 90's by Vincent Flanders.


Blogger Vincent said...

Thanks for the mention. Somebody just submitted Leo Burnett the other day and I used it as the Daily Sucker on

October 13, 2005  

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