Author:  Mardiros Internet Marketing

Creating good web site navigation is the most important task a web designer has to accomplish in the web design process. Web site navigation is the pathway people take to navigate through sites. It must be well constructed, easy to use and intuitive. Poor navigation does not help users and often, your site can prove to be less accessible than others.

Good navigation is fundamental to good web design – in both business and informational sites – users should be able to find information easily. If the navigation is not easy to use or intuitive users will quickly go elsewhere in search of information. We often see ourselves in front of web sites without knowing what to do next. The navigation is so well hidden or disguised that the some users simply dont know how to use it. Navigation is the single most important element in creating accessible and usable web sites.

Checklist and key points to consider when designing navigation

  • People can enter a site through any other page, not just the homepage. Using other pages as entry points is achieved through search engines, links from other web sites or bookmarks. Users must easily find their way around a web site from every and any page. They should be able to reach the homepage from any page within the web site. Reaching all major site sections can only help them see more of the provided information.
  • Bear in mind what people expect from good website navigation: primary navigation (most important links, categories etc), secondary navigation (secondary links, subcategories etc), position of navigation, link titles, number of links per page etc.
  • Keep in mind the “the less clicks the better” concept when designing web site navigation. You must aid your visitors in finding the information they seek as quickly as possible. The website must respond instantly to their instincts.

Think and act like the average user does. Then design.

The most frequent issue in web design is that designers do not act and do not try to experience web sites from the user perspective. They are often misled to think that their web site’s navigation is the best when in fact it might not be. They might only have that impression for the simple fact that they’re familiar with it.

It would be useful to open up a few sites and take a look at the web site navigation, how it’s positioned, how easy it is to go through etc. Consider how many pages you can access from any page. Can you go to related pages? Are there hints to help users navigate? Is there a site map with all the pages in the website? Can you figure out where you are at any time?

Design good primary web site navigation

Although primary navigation is very important users should not be forced to rely heavily on primary navigation but rather be able to use smaller “doorways” to jump to related pages.

  • Left navigation. Left web site navigation is the most common type of navigation. However, the designer must make sure that at 800×600 resolutions or higher the most important navigation links are visible in full at first page load and that they do not fold below the screen. The navigation links width should be narrower than 300px in order to leave enough space for body text. Left navigation has become very popular because it is responds to user behaviour: start reading from the left – read navigation links – click on the desired link – keep reading fresh content to the left.
  • Top navigation. Top navigation is the second most common navigation. The advantage of a top navigation bar is that it leaves more room below for content and other relevant information. However, you must make sure that the navigation stands out. People tend to ignore everything that looks remotely like adds. If you intend to put graphics in the header of the page make sure the navigation bar is situated below the graphics and not above it. People might ignore the graphics and the navigation bar along with it. They might end up thinking that there’s nothing more to that website. This is a classic example of the importance of secondary navigation.
  • Right navigation. For English language based web sites people read from left to right. Thus, a menu situated on the right hand side would be difficult to use. People tend to read the navigation first and then the body text.

Design good secondary navigation

Links which do not belong in the primary navigation are used to make up the secondary navigation. Such links are the usual Contact Us, About Us, Privacy Policy, Terms of Use, Site Map, Links and so on.

Position of the secondary navigation does not have a general rule

  • Secondary navigation can be placed just below primary navigation while making sure it does not stand out as much as the primary navigation does. Web designers can either make the link text smaller, use a separator or leave a reasonable amount of space for the eye to be able to make distinction between the two. When using top navigation secondary navigation can be placed on the left hand side of the page.

Text menus to help users

Text menus can be used as primary navigation but they can also be used as an additional navigation method. Often the text menu is placed at the bottom of the page. By the time you finish reading relatively long pages the main menu may be out of sight, a text menu in the page footer proves to be a solid navigation alternative for users who get easily confused or wish to save time.

Internal linking

One important aspect of navigation is internal linking between the pages. One can place links to other pages within the site in the actual body text of the page. This can help users find related information quickly. Internal linking can also help search engine spiders to find their way to every single page. For example, if you’re talking about text based browsers link the word browsers to a related page like a glossary for instance.

Placing a small set of links just below the text to related pages or resources is also a very successful way to interlink pages of similar interest.

Reasons against intricate, overly modern navigation

When designing for users it is important to give them what they expect. Web designers should not confuse matters by using funky, intricate navigation no matter how cool it might be. Users do not like to be kept away from the information they are after. They do not have the patience or time to discover and learn navigation, it should be instinctive and instantly clickable. Complicated and difficult to use navigation makes users feel uneasy and apprehensive about a web site. They are likely to leave the site to go somewhere else where they feel welcome and where they can easily find what they’re looking for. It’s very important to prevent that from happening.

Web site navigation checklist

  • Titles of navigation links should be short, descriptive and intuitive. Users should easily understand what every link leads to.
  • The primary navigation should not have more than 6-7 links. Keep only the most important links in the primary navigation and leave the rest for the secondary navigation.
  • Make the primary navigation stand out by using graphics or different links style.
  • If using graphics or javascript links, a text alternative should be available. Some people might have the graphics turned off or javascript disabled when browsing the Internet. In such cases an alternate option should be available. To achieve this, a text menu and the bottom of the page could be included.
  • On every page there should be a reasonable number of links. Pages with 20-30 links are harder to use than pages with 10 links. Visitors don’t have the time to click on all of them to see if they are interested in the information secluded behind them. The best approach is group similar links in categories and let people discover them click upon click.
  • Users should be able to tell at any time their whereabouts are in a web site. A crumbs type of menu such as the one on this page lets them know that they are in a subsection of the Accessible web design section.
  • Colour links don’t necessarily have to be standard but they should be able to tell if a link has been clicked before or not.

Testing web site navigation

In order to test web site navigation have inexperienced users navigate through the web site. If they find it intuitive to use then so will more experienced users. It means that the web site is a navigational success.

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