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User navigation techniques

I am often asked how customers can optimize their user’s catalog experience. Typically, this is after they begin to realize that while the search capability is excellent they need to offer users more. In this blog, I am sharing techniques that I’ve seen be used very effectively.

Before diving in I think it’s worth stating that it’s been proven scientifically that we all don’t follow the same strategy when we seek out information. Some prefer an iterative search approach, where they narrow down and zero in on what they want. Others prefer to navigate based on a mental model such as the org structure, business line, system type, etc.

We also need to remember that the most effective catalog is one that contains a broad set of data and data-related assets such as terms, metric descriptions, BI reports, etc. Why does that make it more effective? A catalog with breadth provides value for a broader range of non-technical and technical users which is part of the aim of the catalog, to supply knowledge and understanding for the entire enterprise.

So bringing it back to my topic, we need to provide multiple navigation strategies and that is what you can do by applying some of the techniques below.

Home page groupings and new role-based home pages

A very obvious technique is to customize the home page, but how you do that makes a huge difference. Take a look at this sample home page.

The Quick Links have been replaced with the actions that are most common for the general catalog user population. This includes popping open a conversation so the user can ask a question and opening Compose for writing queries. Some of you may say, ‘Wait a minute. The user can just go to the right sidebar and click on a new conversation or click on the app group and open Compose, why provide this as a quick link?’. The answer is to make common actions as quick and easy as possible for users. It may seem subtle but all of these ‘little’ things create a much better experience.

Next, we see that the most commonly accessed resources are grouped and given their own one-click access. You will have to decide for yourself what you’re most commonly accessed resources are, but the point is to not force your users to navigate their way through to the interface to find them and place them front and center.

Notice in the quick links there is a jump to departmental landing pages and in the resource group, there is a jump to a domain reference page. Returning to my point above, some people will think ‘org’, some ‘domain’, and others ‘search’. At the top of the home page, we have given each of them a starting point.

Continuing down the home page we see role-based groupings. By the way, I am skipping over the Discover Series Grouping which is something specific to the Alation Sales org. These groupings are for people who are primarily focused on tasks related to their role. Again, you will need to decide what are the most relevant and helpful links. You can see that we have a mix of enablement, quick access to common resources, availability status, and ways to ask for help. Also, notice under the governance grouping that we have pulled together the various dashboards and other tools that a governance person has to navigate through the catalog to work with.

At this point, some of you might be wondering how all these links are possible. It’s actually quite easy. Every page in the catalog has its own URL and those URLs can be used on the home page. Other things like the Top Queries and Experts or the Data Source Availability point to articles where that consolidated view is maintained (either manually or automatically). For the icons, I typically use the noun project

I also offer a reminder that release 2022.3 provides the ability to have different home pages by catalog user role (Viewer, Steward, Composer, Catalog, and Server Admin). That provides an opportunity to lay out those home pages with the same purpose-built themes in mind and gives you the possibility to move away from one monolithic home page with several grouping by role.

Article taxonomy

It’s easy to forget about article taxonomies when thinking about helping users navigate. For users who like to browse and drill down through hierarchical categories, they can be very effective. In the image below you can see how parent and child articles can be logically organized and where necessary a naming trick of a letter or numbering prefix cab be used to maintain a specific order.

List pages

These are pages that offer user lists of commonly used assets instead of making them go find them on their own. These types of pages include tag pages, saved searches, articles (I call list index or index pages for short), and domains/subdomains. All of these types of pages allow you to scope and define lists of assets and then copy and paste the URL of the page somewhere like a landing page to give the user ‘one-click’ access.

With articles, I commonly like to create a top query index per data source, top users, most popular assets, and FAQ list which point to FAQ conversations. You can create these manually by using @mentions or more interestingly many can be created and updated automatically using simple python scripts and the Alation API. Describing how to do that will need to be the focus of another blog.

Departmental landing pages

Some users want a place to see ‘their’ stuff, which is defined by the part of the organization to which they belong. That place is a departmental landing page. Once the same departmental landing page template is rolled out for all departments it creates a higher level of UI consistency and a better overall user experience. Here is an example of a simple one I created for our Alation University department

Watches & starred items

We all get so focused on complex catalog capabilities we sometimes overlook the most obvious. The ability for users to star and set watches on assets can dramatically increase their productivity and user experience. Once they set these on any asset they can use the search UI to show their personal assets and quickly jump right back to where they want to be.

Browser Bookmarks

This also falls into the category of sometimes overlooking the obvious. Every catalog page can be bookmarked by the user within their browser allowing them to create their own unique and personal navigation experience. They can bookmark key queries, tables, users they want to follow, conversations that answer a key question, key joins statements, etc., etc.


I am 100% certain that this is not an exhaustive list or even the best, but I hope it's helpful and also encourages customers in the Community to share their experiences so we can all build a more compelling user experience for catalog users.


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