To appeal to audience members, you must give them easy access to the information you're providing. The front door has to be clearly visible, the hallways clean, the aisles clearly labeled, the products at eye level, and the exit signs always brightly illuminated. If your audience members start to feel overwhelmed or confused, they won't muddle through--they'll get out as fast as their legs can carry them.

Good navigation removes a psychological barrier. If the communication looks like something that requires "a quick read" rather than a major investment of time and attention, we're more likely to give it a try.

Need a role model for effective navigation? Pick up today's print edition of USA Today.

Ah, USA Today. So simple, so humble, and yet so brilliant. When it made its debut in 1982, the new paper was denigrated for being too lowbrow. The idea that a serious newspaper would be colorful (literally), with short articles and bite-sized information was heretical to communication professionals (especially writers and journalists and everyone else in love with long narrative copy). They dubbed USA Today "McPaper" and derided it as being "Paper Lite."

Then, the next day--well, within a couple of months, to be precise--other media started to imitate USA Today. Newspapers that had been a sea of gray suddenly discovered color. Magazines that were strictly linear became more modular. When news websites like CNN (were created a few years later, their home pages looked suspiciously like the front page of USA Today.

The newspaper is a still good role model for any communication, and it's especially valuable when thinking about how to make your messages easy to navigate.

What makes USA Today's navigation so effective? Here are 6 ingredients:

  1. It's organized by topic. The newspaper has four separate sections identified by color: News is blue, Sports is red, Money is green, Life is purple. Don't like sports? Find the section with the red tab. Lift it out and move on.
  2. Color is also used as a key throughout the entire paper to help readers identify and find information. On the front page in the left-hand summary column called "Newsline," each story is marked with a little color-coded box (green is financial; blue is for news, etc.) to indicate what type of information they contain.
  3. Layout--through placement and length--makes it clear which article is most important, which is second, which is third, and so forth. Ever read an archived newspaper from 50 years ago? In most issues, everything was the same size and prominence, so it was hard to tell where to look first. USA Today leverages the article's placement (higher up on the page means it is more important); the size of the headline (the bigger it is, the more the editors want you to pay attention); whether or not a photo or illustration is included, and other graphic elements to guide the reader.
  4. Information is cross-referenced. Every section has a summary in the left hand column ("Newsline," "Sportsline," "Moneyline" and, my favorite, "Lifeline") that allows readers to quickly get the gist of what's covered.
  5. It's not linear. Before USA Today, most newspaper editors made the assumption that their publications would be read in an orderly fashion, from front to back. USA Today recognized that busy readers want to skim and skip at will. If a story continues to another page--and very few of them do--it always concludes within the section where it started.
  6. Headlines, subheads and sidebars are used to break up copy, punctuate important points, and draw the reader into and through each story. And typography techniques--size, style, lightness or boldness--are employed as both a graphic and a navigational tool.

In short, helping your audience navigate is really just as simple as this: USA Today.