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Friday, Mar. 23, 2007 at 5:04 am

Fancy-Pants Navigation and Pencil Twirling

By Dave Young
March 23rd, 2007

Pencil TwirlingSliding, expanding, unfolding, cascading, fancy-pants hovering, animated navigational elements on web sites are the programming equivalent of pencil-twirling. Some people might say it’s cool, until they actually have to find something on the site. Then it’s just annoying and distracting.

I have an old friend who is a twirler. Mostly pencils, but I’ve seen him twirl knives, forks, plates, food, even sofa cushions. He’s the kind of guy who would walk across a college campus twirling a textbook on his knuckles. Manipulating poker chips is certainly a related skill.

I’ve always felt that twirlers and the poker chip twiddlers were sending the same message: “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m good at it.” The chip shuffling may intimidate other poker players. The pencil twirling just draws the attention of the rest of the people sitting around the conference table.

Most of us are twirl challenged. I never learned to twirl. I quit trying after about age 23. I don’t play poker, so chip juggling is not a skill set for me either. (Maybe I should take up Twitter.) My observation is that these people twirl things because they can.

So, what’s my point?

Take a look at the execution of your navigational elements on your web site. Are they twirling? I mean, are they distracting, or do they convey helpful information without forcing some kind of hovering activity on my end? Are the relevant sub-nav links visible?

Apple does a good job with their tab structure and grouping. Amazon even customizes the tabs if you’re signed in. It’s nice and it’s contextual. On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a site that uses some fancy stuff PLUS sound! It’s hard to read the tabs when you’re having so much fun strumming the menu like a musical instrument. It gets in the way of the visitor’s purpose.
Just because you CAN execute fancy navigational menus doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

The research has been done. The results are in. It’s conclusive.

If the purpose of your site is to get people to engage in your technology, by all means put the gadgetry front and center.

If the purpose of your site is to help people navigate a buying process, then get your pencil-twirling self out of their way and help them find the cash register instead.

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Comments (7)

  1. [...] * To start off, I found this last week from Jakob Nielsen. 10 High-Profit Redesign Priorities from the usability master of the world. From creating passionate users we have a post on eliminating fear for profit. Good read from Kathy Sierra. Finally from the persuasion architect himself: Pencil Twirling & Navigation. Just so you know, I can twirl my writing utensils. [...]

  2. Not sure I can speak on behalf of habitual ‘pencil twirlers’, but I certainly am one (pens, mainly, but I wouldn’t shy away from a serrated knife). Never realized it so distracting for other people… But, now that I think of it, meetings tend to be the only chance I get to indulge. If it’s any consolation, I do this on conference calls, too ;)

    It’s a great analogy, though. I’m sure that when I started flipping pens around my thumb back in high school, the point was to distract other people. Everyone on the debate team did it. I didn’t bother joining, but I recall picking it up just to taunt my smarty-pants friends who did. (Of course, the irony here was lost on my teenage male ego.)

    Like an ecommerce site that added FEATURES along the way without considering VALUE to its audience, such is my pencil twirling…

    The message to online marketers: Don’t make showing off a habit.

  3. Thanks Robert. I’m sure it was a better habit to pick up than say…smoking. BTW…I’m one of those easily distracted people at meetings. Anything shiny and moving.

  4. yea i twirl pencils, pens, knives, anything lol like books. i cant stop it helps me concentrate better

  5. Wonderful blog, some fascinating points. I remember 2 of days ago, I have visited a similar post.

  6. If you check the Bentley Capital site now, three years on, the top navigation doesn’t even show up (Firefox 3, Mac).

    A site written in standards compliant HTML would still be loading now and 10 years from now.

    It would be viewable on iPads, Droids, Kindles and other devices that were not even a pipe dream in 2007.

    All too often, “pencil twirl” type features rely on some quirk of the browser or operating system that ceases to work a few months or years down the line.

    If you don’t have the time to constantly tweak, test and maintain your cutting-edge novelty feature then stick to standards-compliant code!

  7. @Gareth Price – touche!

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