Bifocal Collection Navigation
Three words you’ve probably never seen used together before. Let’s break them up to see what we’re talking about.
Bifocal – in this case, we’re not talking about glasses. Instead, we’re talking about the more concrete meaning: having two points of focus.
Collection – this means what it sounds like, ordered structured information
Navigation – not a compass or map, not GPS, and not stopping in the gas station and asking directions; just how folks find their way around your app as they move between tasks they need to complete
First, we’ll talk about collection navigation, and then we’ll add the last part to tie it all together. We interact with collections of information every day. Standing in line at a supermarket, you are prompted to navigate the collection of impulse buy items in the cashier’s isle. Some people scan through looking for cheap gum. Others seek a more involved sample, shuffling through a magazine they do not intend to buy while they wait in the queue. Whatever our reaction, we all interact with this assortment of items, in the context of the cashier experience, and the nature of the items and their relationship to other aspects of the environment are clear to us as consumers. Commerce, at its core, is really just a matter of selecting a set of items (cart) from a larger set (catalog), conveying that information to the vendor (order), making payment, and retrieving the items (delivery). This workflow inherently involves an exercise in collection navigation.
So, let’s add in the last piece. To be bifocal, there must be two points on which the consumer may focus. We’ll use the example of tapestry selection. Say you’d like to buy a tapestry, but you don’t know what you want. This is the “summary” focus of your search. As you scan quickly over large sets of patterns, you rule out lots of options, sometimes ten at a time. Once you converge on an area of viable candidates, you shift to the “detail” focus of your search. You haven’t gone anywhere. You’re still in the bodega shuffling through patterns, but your approach is different. Whereas before you were interested in overall aesthetic or color, now you approach each option with a more refined sensibility. You sweat the details. After stepping through and reviewing a few options, you find this section just isn’t quite what you want. So, you shift back to summary focus and continue to scan. Then you shift to detail focus again for more thorough review. Eventually, you take action to buy the item, or you give up and bail out.
By evaluating the patterns we observe in offline behavior, we can better understand online behavior and offer improved interfaces to allow the offline trends and expectations to flow naturally and organically into the digital world. Some mail apps are starting to offer features that do this, allowing you to step through your inbox in detail view or more quickly in summary view. I’m currently working on a mobile app that uses these dynamics to solve a critical problem in the marketplace. As we develop interface components for this app, we’re finding that the summary-detail idiom is extremely effective at allowing users different perspectives on the same information. Even more compelling is the notion of a continuum of context, the feeling that information is not lost as they navigate about. This is critical when the collection itself is the result of a filter and/or search, as is often the case in commerce applications. The context of their previously entered information is valuable and relevant to their task, so it’s important to retain that.
If you can offer intelligence based on context, that’s even better, but that’s a topic for another time.