Today I am thinking about coal, and specifically the multimedia website Coal: A Love Story. For this website, I conducted a usability test on myself and my brother to test the site’s navigation.
My own experience with the navigation was nonlinear, though the website is designed so that it could be approached linearly as well. After scrolling over the whole website, I first clicked the link about midway through the page that allowed me to calculate my own coal use, because it was interactive. From there, I went back to start the beginning. I remarked favorably on the fact that this didn’t take me to another page or a popup, but just a window that I could easily exit out of to reach the main page. I then looked at a number of videos in no particular order. I stumbled upon a link that referred to Wyoming that I had scrolled past several times, because it was specifically relevant to me.
Then came the job of locating a way to contact the creators of the website. This is where I ran into issues. The first place I looked was at the bottom of the page, for a “contact us” link. None presented itself, so I started clicking on “about” links, to News 21, The Carnegie Foundation, and others. I ended up jumping around these sites with little luck. I started exploring the original page, looking for anything obvious, but still found nothing; I threw up my arms at about the 10 minute mark.
Other than being unable to find the page creators contact page, I liked the navigation. At the same time, in light of some of the rules we learned about navigation, I found that the smaller, “learn more” links below some of the main topics were difficult to notice – they felt out of the way. I also failed to notice the “next” function on the videos until I had watched a number of them. I found the odd way that they changed the size of each section distracting and a little confusing. Are the larger rectangle stories more important?
Next, I did the same usability test on my brother. He began by watching the second video, and then used the next button. After this, he explored the page and tried clicking on the link “Energy Viewpoints” at the bottom of the page, only to find that it was a dead link. Not surprisingly, the last link he went to was the one referring to Wyoming.
During his exploration, he commented that he “liked the style” of the page. Specifically concerning navigation, he commented favorably on the fact that most of the links didn’t lead him to another page. He also praised the fact that it was as easy to explore linearly as it was to take a nonlinear approach.
When I asked him to figure out how to contact the people who made the page, he had no trouble. Whereas I had found myself frustratingly digging through related pages and finding nothing, he noticed the link “About Coal: A Love Story” and immediately found contact information.
His and my experiences were similar, in that we both explored the page in a nonlinear manner, picking and choosing what appeared most interesting. Though it could be viewed linearly, there was no specific reason why that experience was better than just exploring the page. For differences, I explored a little more randomly than he did and he found and clicked on links that I never even noticed(including a dead one). Most pronounced was the fact that he had no trouble navigating the site to find a contact page: is that page difficult to find or not? I have no idea.
Powering a Nation’s “Coal: A Love Story” uses some good navigation. They shouldn’t change how the videos open in pages that are easy to close, or their non-linear approach to the story. In addition, the inclusion of next buttons and a navigational bar on the left makes the linear approach possible as well. This facilitates different ways of approaching the story, and that’s good.
Not everything about the site is smooth, however. I think that the way they alternate the sizes of the sections is confusing, and that their subheadings (“Learn more”) are easy to miss, and that should be fixed. Finally, there’s no good reason for a site like this to have dead links. (I’d suggest leaving an obvious “contact us” link at the bottom of the page, too, but perhaps that’s my own issue…)
Joshua C. Geiger