Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

Avoiding the dirty magnet in navigation design

September 30, 2012 -- Gerry McGovern

A dirty magnet is a link that attracts people to click on it promising to bring them somewhere that it won’t.

If links were married most of them would be getting divorced; because so many links don’t keep their promises. A broken promise is just as bad as a broken link: It gives you the wrong expectations; it brings you to the wrong place; it wastes your time; it frustrates and annoys.

The dirty magnet jumps up and down yelling: “I can help! Click here! Click here!” It promises everything and delivers very little. It undermines the integrity of the navigation system.

Great links immediately tell you where they will bring you. But even more important they tell you where they WON’T bring you. A great link instantly says what it is and what it is NOT. If you see a link called “Pricing” then you know that it is not “Troubleshooting”. You know what it is. You know what it is not.

If you see a link called “Resources,” what does that mean? What is it? What is it NOT? What does “Knowledge Base” mean? What are “Tools”? And what are they NOT? If you see links called “Videos” or “Blogs” how do you know what you will get?

The classic dirty magnet is the FAQ. How does a customer know their question is frequently asked or not? How do they know what they’ll get if they click on FAQ and what they will not get? I once came across a website that had these two links: “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Most Frequently Asked Questions.”

Why do dirty magnets exist? Mainly because they reflect the organization’s view of the world. These links make it easy for the organization. What is behind a “Knowledge Base”, for example, is often a separate content management system than what runs the rest of the website. I once questioned why there was a link called “Resources” on a particular website. “Oh, we know it’s terrible,” I was told. “But Team X wants to keep all their content in the same place."

How do you identify a dirty magnet? Identify the top tasks of your customers and then create 10-15 questions based on these tasks. Then give about 30 customers these questions and ask them where would be their first click in order to solve these tasks. You will then be able to see if one particular link is getting clicked on a lot regardless of the task question. This is a dirty magnet. It is drawing clicks away from other more relevant links.

I once worked on an intranet that had a link called “Local Resources”. This was meant to have information on canteens, parking, IT help, meeting rooms, etc.” There were other links at the same level as Local Resources, such as About Company X, Products, About Me / My Employment. When we tested a range of task questions, Local Resources got lots and lots of clicks regardless of the task.

Local Resources had become a dirty magnet, an ‘Infinity and Beyond’ link, promising everything. It was a website within a website. If you have a dirty magnet in your navigation you need to get rid of it. Otherwise it will undermine the usefulness of the entire navigation.