I’ve been re-exposed to “industry” web design practices while staying with some friends in Germany who work at a large agency. In particular, I’ve seen that hierarchical navigation and site organization tactics are no distant memory. A lot of clients still come to the table with an org chart and ask their designer to implement the same structure on their website. The result is a website that reads like an office directory in the skyscraper lobby. Or the hierarchy approach can lead to terms that simply block customers from finding what they want. For example, my friend did some work for a shoe company who wished to hide six different kinds of shoes behind a gate called “Performance”. When my friend asked 40 uninvolved people in his office what the category “performance” meant to them, only 10 had even a vague idea. So hierarchies have their problems. What other organizing methods could we consider instead?

Instead of thinking in terms of hierarchy or up-front structure, I think it’s better to work with paths. A path is a line that goes from a starting point A to an accomplishment B. Each customer who comes to the site doesn’t care about the overall structure. They care about getting from A to B. That’s a path. Where are your golf shoes? That’s a path. Does my cell phone support international calling? That’s a path. Collect all the paths you can think of in a pile, pull out the 8 paths that 80% of your visitors come looking for, and that’s your home page. When paths overlap or the same customer needs them, weave them together. Add the occasional fork. DRY out paths with lots of overlapping information for efficiency. These operations feel concrete, and they connect directly with customer goals instead of organizational box drawings or hand-wavy concepts.

Lines are better than boxes for mapping the contours of your domain. So next time you work with a hierarchy-minded group, try to pull them out of the boxes and talk with them about individual starting points and goals for their customers.