In this paper, we describe an empirical study of individuals’ spatial navigation strategies and a number of performance and preference measures with regard to the design of a novel 3D visualisation. The underlying semantic space of the user interface consists of a collection of papers from the three most recent ACM SIGCHI conference proceedings, visualised as a virtual reality network. This network was automatically constructed based on semantic similarities derived from latent semantic analysis. We studied the search strategies and general preferences of eleven subjects who used this system to find papers on various topics. The study has led to a number of interesting findings, which should be valuable for designers and evaluators of 3D user interfaces. The results highlight the importance of structural elements in the design of a semantically based user interface, because search strategies of users relied heavily on these mechanisms in the design. The results of this study also demonstrate that we are able to characterise and learn from users’ search strategies in a visual environment strongly shaped by semantic relationships of the information content. Implications for user interface design based on users’ psychological models of a semantic space are described.