Navigation: Oh, The Places You Were Trying to Go

Jared M. Spool
6 min readJan 6, 2016


There’s a saying that you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you come from. Designing navigation for enterprise applications is a journey unto itself. One that UX Immersion speaker, Hagan Rivers is quite familiar with.

In this podcast, listen as Jared Spool discusses the importance of clear navigation systems in enterprise applications with special guest Hagan Rivers. They explore techniques for tackling complex navigation, how screen codes are perfect for those with in-depth experience, and how a balance with ease-of-learning is critical.

When you’re sitting face to face with the wilderness that is an enterprise application, a map and compass would serve you well. Unless you’re a tracker, know which side moss grows on a tree, or can follow the stars, you’re likely not going to be able to navigate through on your own, much less find shortcuts and become proficient.

Hagan will be joining us in San Diego, CA on April 18–20 for our UX Immersion: Interactions conference. She’ll be teaching a daylong workshop on how to guide users through the wilderness. For more information, visit

Jared Spool: Welcome to the UX Immersion Podcast. I’m Jared Spool.
Nothing has plagued humanity through the ages more than the simple problem of getting from here to there.

Hagan Rivers: In general, a classic problem of Enterprise apps, I sit down and 25 or 30 percent of the pixels on the screen are dedicated to navigation. That’s horrible, because Enterprise apps really need every pixel.
My name is Hagan Rivers.

Jared: Hagan spends her time working with companies to, among other things, clarify and streamline their navigation systems in large enterprise applications.

Hagan: They have big tables and lots of data and giant forms. They can’t afford to lose anything to the navigation systems, and the navigation systems grow and grow and grow until…I literally had a client who had half the pixels on the screen lost to navigation of one kind or another.

Jared: The user’s tasks should be relatively easy to accomplish. Yet, because of the lost screen real estate, these tasks become a journey across “quick links”, tabs, sidebars, help links, and footer links. All leading away from the user’s transaction. Much like Dorothy asking directions of the Scarecrow.

Hagan: I’ve run into apps, too, like this, where they have navigation on the top which is like tabs and menus, and then on the left they have a tree, and they go to the same places. I ask them, “Why do you have two navigation systems that go to the same tree?”
“Oh, we weren’t sure if users would like the new one on the left, so we left the one on the top so that they could keep using that if they wanted to.” You probably failed at that point. [laughs] If you don’t have confidence in your new design, that’s probably not a good starting point.

Jared: Every application that has more than a single screen requires some sort of navigation to move between them. Yet, there’s no definitive style for how the navigation should look and work. If you don’t have that confidence in your own design, you tend to look outward for examples that seem to work.

Hagan: When Amazon was using tabs, there were Enterprise apps all over the place that had 10 and 20 tabs across the top, and then Amazon moved away from tabs, but the tabs stayed. They just added a new system on the left. [laughs]
Then they went to menus. So, I think it’s a real sense that they’re chasing the right idea, but they haven’t really sat down and thoughtfully designed it and tested it with users.

Jared: There are, of course, always people who know where they’re going and how to get there. A business traveler moves more swiftly through an airport than a infrequent vacationer would, breezing through security, and advancing quickly to their flight’s gate.
So-called “power users” have learned behavior that becomes almost muscle memory as compared to those unfamiliar or new to the product. Many enterprise applications were built with short screen codes that would jump you exactly where you wanted to be, making navigating with app of 600 or more screens really not that big of a deal.

Hagan: I worked on a healthcare app this year that they still have the screen codes. I watched users use them heavily. People who had been using this app for a decade and they knew the codes. They knew where they needed to go.
If you know exactly what screen you want to go to and you know the code for it, there is no faster system to get you there [laughs] than to type it in and go there. That’s a great system. It’s not easy to learn. It’s not easily adjusted to change. It is a fantastic little shortcut for those users.

Jared: Traveling requires identifying the destination. Yet it also requires identifying the vehicle that will there.

Hagan: You start to build up a sense of, “This is a little application. How do these screens fit together in the user’s mind, and how do they want to get to them?” The navigation in your application is just another application inside yours whose entire job is to get you to the right screen.

Jared: You want your users to travel quickly, so you need to avoid friction. Often, friction comes from not recognizing where to go or how to get there. Designing navigation is a balancing act, between speed of use and ease of learning.

Hagan: You need to be able to learn it. You need to be able to discover stuff in it. The whole features of your application will live or die by whether or not users find them in the navigation. There’s got to be discoverability. Those got to be easy to use.
One of my guiding philosophies is I always try to design the navigation system last which really bugs most of my clients. They want me to start with navigation.
Both on Enterprise apps and even when we’re starting an app from scratch, they say, “Let’s do the navigation system first.” That always seemed really backwards to me.

Jared: Designing your navigation system first is like installing the elevator before knowing how many floors the building will have. Without knowing the inner workings of your app, you can’t possibly know the optimal path to guide your users through it.

Hagan: I need to spend time learning all the constraints and the screens and the users and the tasks and all that stuff. They always want to start with navigation. I say, “Let’s do some other design work first. Give me an opportunity to understand this application and then we’ll work on what navigation should look like.”
That’s the first thing. It’s almost like, “Let’s write the table of contents while we still have just the notion of what the book will be.” Eventually, you might get to an outline, but exactly with the same process. You want to work your backwards from the screens you made to the navigation system that supports those.
Enterprise apps, people are sometimes are using these apps hours a day. This isn’t the light touch like you get in Netflix or LinkedIn or things like that. These are apps that people sit down at for hours at a time sometimes.They don’t want a navigation system that’s clicky, clicky, clicky. They want to go fast. You’ve got to a lot of different needs to satisfy. It’s hard.

Jared: When you go on a trip, you want as few obstacles as possible. There are reasons travel applications like Hipmunk sort search results by “agony”. A direct flight is much less painful than five layovers to get you to the same destination. If your users have to traverse an incomprehensible menu system, or worse yet, they don’t even know where to start, it’s a clear indication that your navigation might be broken.
Experienced sailors can use nothing but the North Star to navigate their ships. But for the rest of us, we need clear and painless tools for finding our way.
The UX Immersion podcast is brought to you by the UX Immersion: Interactions conference, which is going to be April 18‐20 in San Diego, California. That’s where Hagan Rivers is giving a full‐day workshop on all the tricks and techniques for simplifying complex enterprise applications.
Hagan has been helping teams redesign the navigation on their enterprise applications for decades, so she’s seen and done it all. If you work on enterprise apps, this is a day of learning you can’t afford to miss.
The UX Immersion podcast is produced by myself and Sean Carmichael. You can find more information about the UX Immersion podcast on iTunes and at the UX Immersion: Interactions conference web site,
We’d like to thank Hagan Rivers for being a part of this episode.
You’ve been listening the UX Immersion Podcast, part of the growing UIE Podcast Network. Thanks for listening and for encouraging our behavior.



Jared M. Spool

Maker of Awesomeness at Center Centre - UIE. Helping designers everywhere help their organizations deliver well-designed products and services.