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External Accessibility

1 April 2015
Sagit Salmon

External Accessibility is defined as the process of accessing a piece of information; the steps one follows in order to reach the requested knowledge.

As people think differently, due both to their nature and the context of their work, it is best to design alternative channels enabling access to the information. This is true for internet sites, as well as for extranets and intranets. It is true for any information system (ECM, documents, service center, etc.)


What external access channels exist?

The main channels enabling external access nowadays include:


Menus/ Content trees

Provide hierarchy navigation. Used for organizing the different themes featured in the website hierarchically, similar to the hierarchy in a folder-based organization system or a shared driver. The information is accessed by clicking and choosing a path.

A content tree can be organized according to professional subjects, file type, organizational structure or processes.

This channel seems very natural for human usage, yet enfolds two challenges:

One challenge has to do with hierarchy. We don't always find one hierarchy suitable for addressing all needs. In rare cases, we can enable more than one hierarchy using several sets of menus. Such a solution must be designed very carefully in order to not confuse the user by overwhelming him with options.

The second challenge in utilizing a content tree is maintaining the balance between the "width" of the tree and its "depth". A tree too wide contains a long list of subjects which can make navigating difficult, while a tree too deep requires many clicks which may be tiring.

It is recommended to provide a solution in which the user will not have to "dive in" more than 3 levels deep or review in a specific branch (width speaking) more that can be viewed in one glance without scrolling.



Search engines enable the users to locate the information directly- with no structure, as required in navigation. The search is by text only (free search) or in joint with attributes and values filtering the search content (advanced search). It is recommended to note three issues: keeping the search fast, simple and accurate. Usually the “simple” challenge is the easiest to deal with, and the most important, as the search engines do a good job on being accurate and fast. While people like to use free search, they less mind filtering results (post search) and therefore, special care should be taken as how to display the results in a friendly manner, enabling easy refinement, after the first search was produced.


Pictures & Icons (representing quick links)

Pictures & icons provide the website with interest, color and simplicity. They usually allow access to selected information within a single click. Sometimes, icons can substitute for a menu. When using a series of pictures/icons, it is important to maintain some connection between the different images (size, style and/or shape). Obviously, the icon must represent the content to which it leads (e.g. a telephone icon leading to a contact list). If possible, it is preferable to use universal symbols (such as a stop signs or an error notification).


Bread Crumbs

Bread Crumbs comprise the official hierarchy path leading to the page one is observing. Usually, this path includes several levels, each serving as a hyperlink leading to some lobby page on the way. Bread Crumbs allow the user to "skip" from one level of the hierarchy to another, yet does not allow navigating between items located on the same level. In many platforms, Bread Crumbs are created automatically as the site is constructed. When Bread Crumbs are meant to be used as a main tool of external accessibility, it is recommended to design them in a noticeable manner. In this case, they should indeed be hyperlinks.


Tag Clouds

Tags are key words attached to knowledge items that can assist in accessing them. A tag cloud is a collection of key words presented as hyperlinks which enables quick access to different items deep into the site, items not necessarily related. The words in the tag are presented in different sizes, usually signifying the level of popularity of the items. For more information, click here.


Personal favorites

Personal favorites are preferences that allow the user to manage his own list of common used items to which he wants to navigate within one click. This is the only means of External accessibility listed here that is personally managed and controlled by the user.


Guidelines for designing External Accessibility

  • Concise: Easily understanding where to go

  • Consistent: Ensuring same rules apply for all channels and their contents.

  • Short: Giving the user the cognitive impression that he/she does not have to think nor strain in order to reach whatever item he is interested in

  • Pleasant: Enjoying the ride.


In short, External Accessibility deals with leading the user to the requested information.

And what happens when we reach the information?

That will be elaborated on in "Internal Accessibility".


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