March 2020

Journey to the Unknown

CIDMIconNewsletter Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services

You could say I travel a lot; two months into 2020 and I’ve been home, sleeping in my own bed, a grand total of 14 nights. Although traveling itself might be a bit draining, I count myself fortunate to be given the opportunity to go to so many new places, experience a variety of different cultures, see spectacular, bucket-list sites, and meet wonderfully kind and welcoming people. I find myself in some places, such as San Jose and Orlando, multiple times a year (albeit for significantly different reasons) and I know my way around as if they were home. Other locations, such as Copenhagen or Stockholm, have a familiar feeling each time I go; although I’m there less frequently (maybe once a year or bi-annually), it only takes a moment to orient and I am navigating with ease. Unfortunately, there are also places, such as Boston or New York, that no matter how often I visit, I feel as though I’m journeying into the unknown. I may have been there dozens of times or it could be my first visit, but these places are unfamiliar to me; I am often uncomfortable and frequently lost.

The parallels to a user’s experience with a product and its documentation should not be lost on anyone. Some content is visited frequently – printed content is dog-eared, online content favorited, so that it is easy to find. The content is familiar, and even if not already flagged, users are comfortable navigating through pages to find what they need. Other content may be visited less regularly, but with a little orientation and a few hits and misses, users become self-sufficient in obtaining necessary information. Unfortunately, however, the user experience with documentation is often a journey into the unknown: the content is unfamiliar, regardless of the number of times it is accessed, and users find themselves uncomfortable and lost.

The obvious question then is whether or not the things that make a difference to me navigating around the world have parallels in the realm of documentation and content strategy. I suppose it’s obvious that I wouldn’t have chosen this topic to write about if I didn’t think the answer was yes—when it comes to navigation and findability, we as content strategists can learn a few things from the hits and misses of city planners. As I think about the places I’ve been, here are a few key attributes that impact my ability to get where I want to be:

  • Are the streets on a well-defined grid? As much as I love Venice, I am always lost. I suppose part of its charm is that I can meander down streets and suddenly run into a dead-end as I hit a canal with no bridge to cross over and I’m forced to retrace my steps. On the other hand, in Salt Lake City, all roads are laid out on a grid that expands from a central location; you always know how far north, south, east, or west, you are of that point — the Mormon temple. If you know where you are and where you want to go, it’s basically simple math to determine how far to go in each direction to get there.
  • Can you see a prominent landmark? The first place I ever lived where I understood the point of giving someone cardinal directions was Denver, where I’ve now lived for almost 40 years. In Denver, the mountains are to the west. You can always see them, so it makes sense to tell someone to go east (i.e. away from the mountains). This is in direct contrast to putting me in Cleveland and telling me to drive away from the lake (south). Unless I’m next to the lake, I can’t see it. I’ve never understood how telling me to navigate in a direction to or from a landmark I can’t see helps anything.
  • Is it similar to other places that I’m familiar with? Put me in a country where I am driving on the wrong side of the road and I’m already at a disadvantage. The first time I went to London was comical as I faced both driving on the wrong side of the road (and car) and my first traffic circles. I had a true National Lampoon’s European Vacation moment (“Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament”) as I went round and round in a traffic circle, wondering if I would ever get out. But even that experience pales in comparison to the cacophony and chaos of Bangalore (Figure 1), where not only do they drive on the wrong side of the road, but globally well-accepted rules of the road, such as staying in your lane, have no meaning. Bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, cars, horses, and an occasional camel all compete for a portion of asphalt in an attempt to reach a destination.

Figure 1: Bangalore Chaos

    • Do I know how to use the transportation options? With the exception of New York (where I must know whether I am going uptown or downtown, and I don’t…), I adore subway or metro systems. They are all basically the same – find a station near you, locate the station where you want to go on the map, and go to the side of the platform that indicates the train will be going to that station. Once on the train, convenient indicators tell me where I am and how far I am from the stop I need. Conversely, I despise buses. They might be more versatile than the metro, but I can never figure out how much the bus costs, and once I’m on the bus, I have no idea when the stop I want is coming up.


    • Are my transportation options available whenever and wherever I want them? I learned the hard way that the very same metros that I love in cities like Rome and Paris are not 24 hours, paying exorbitant cab fares to get back where I needed to be. (Wouldn’t you think that a place that expects you to sit down to a 2 or 3 hour dinner at 11 at night would keep their subways open later than 1 in the morning?) Every time I’m in Washington D.C., my feet bemoan the fact that after I’ve walked the 2.3 miles down the National Mall from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial, I must walk another 0.8 miles to Foggy Bottom, the nearest metro station. (Wouldn’t you expect such a popular location to be easier to get to?)


  • Is there sufficient and clear signage? One of my biggest frustrations are subway stations with multiple exits. Take the wrong one, and I’m blocks from where I thought I was going to be. But the signs are often inadequate and unhelpful for figuring out which one to take. In Barcelona, I was separated from my family in a central subway station; after a long time of trying to explain what exits we were each at, we all finally had to go to street level and find landmarks, rather than exit signs, to find each other. Out and about, street signs can be another frustration (Figure 2) – hard to find, too small to read, and often unintelligible and contradictory, such as the ones in the pictures. (I must confess that I’ve never seen the specific signs in the pictures, but they certainly drive home the point.)

Figure 2: Confusing Street Signs

    • Is my destination well labelled? Often, I don’t even recognize I’ve reached the location I was looking for. I can’t tell you how many times I walked by the “grocery store” I was looking for in Bangalore because it wasn’t well labelled and didn’t look like what I expected. I had a similar experience looking for a pharmacy in Singapore. When I teach, I’m often told to report to a specific building on a campus, but there are no signs or labels on the buildings to know which is which. Everyone on site just knows, and no one thinks to let me in on the secret.


  • Is Google maps up-to-date and accurate? I don’t often navigate anymore without cell phone in hand. However, my reliance on technology has taken me to a residential neighborhood in Chicago, claiming I had arrived at a Steak & Shake, when I clearly was sitting outside someone’s house, leaving me to wonder if I should just walk up and order a meal. I have driven past permanent road signs (Figure 3), telling me not to trust my GPS. If my technology is letting me down, who can I trust?

Figure 3: Trusting GPS?

My experiences navigating around the world certainly parallel our users’ experiences navigating the world wide web. However, being lost and retracing your steps when looking for information is not even partially offset by the ability to window shop or purchase gelato from a street vendor. We don’t get more tourists by appealing to the adventurer inside. Instead, we frustrate and ultimately lose them. It is clearly imperative that we meet the navigational needs of our visitors:

  • We must recognize our users’ dependence on Google. If your site and your information doesn’t show up in the top few hits, you’ve lost them. If you aren’t worried about SEO, you should be.
  • We must continue to offer many different findability options to appeal to the variety of preferences of our users and those options must be readily available, regardless of where the users start.
  • Our navigation options must be easy to use or figure out. What’s the difference between the two search bars on your screen? How do you display and use facets? Can users tell how many search results will appear if they use those facets? Your user doesn’t want to take time figuring out how to navigate; it must come naturally to them.
  • The relationship between topics needs to be well-defined and predictable. It should be clear to our visitors what direction to take to find the information they need.
  • We need to provide bread crumbs showing the path our users took and clarifying where they are in the grand scheme of things.
  • We must follow industry standards in our topic structure and writing standards. Following those structures gives an air of familiarity to your content, even if users don’t really know why.
  • We must provide clear and meaningful titles with words that the users recognize as what they are looking for so they don’t scan right by.

The reality is that our customers are on a journey through our content. Like city planners, we need to make the critical functions, star attractions, and every day businesses easily accessible to our natives as well as our visitors. I invite you to join us at Journeys, our new CIDM conference co-located with DITA North America, this April as we explore strategies for improving your customer experience on their journey with your company and through your information products. For more information, visit CIDMIconNewsletter