Navigation 101: Don’t Make Your Visitors Work for Content

There are so many factors to consider when constructing a website that it can be difficult to know where the starting point is. Things like the topic of your website, level of engagement, value provided, etc. are some of those elements that need special attention if you want to be successful online. All of these working pieces are affected by the content you create. Content is essentially the heart and soul of your website.

So if content is the heart and soul, then navigation is the brain and fundamental pillar of information architecture design. When managing a great deal of content, the critical importance of a websites navigation cannot be overestimated. Content that can’t be found, can’t be read. And if the content isn’t being read, it has zero value.

Designing navigation is like creating a road-sign system.  The post important factor is functionality, not style. A reader, like a driver in car, moves quickly.  Navigation is never the end objective for the reader.  Its only purpose is to help them get to where they need to go.  Therefore, the look and feel of your navigation should always be simple, direct, unadorned, with the overriding objective of helping your user get the information they want.

  1. Design for your audience
    If you could take and utilize only one item from this article, it should be this. ALWAYS design for the people who use the website.  Avoid creating designs simply because they look “cool”.  And even more importantly, don’t create navigation based on the point of view of your organization.  This can sometimes be difficult for companies who have a lot approvals to obtain throughout the build process, but you can’t help promote your business and message if you’re using internal jargon or classifications that mean nothing to your users

    Remember, navigation is a guide for the reader.  Unless you have engaged your users to find out how they like to navigate, it may be difficult to design a navigation that will meet their needs.  Creating a user survey or exit poll is a great way to get insights and feedback to give the user what they want.

  2. Distinction
    This really encompasses a few practices.  Obviously, the navigation should always be separated and easy to find. Avoid using the same color, font, and size as your body text. It needs to stand out.

    But it should also let your readers know where they are. Like a directory map at the mall, the navigation should tell the user “You are here”.  This can be easily achieved with prominent titles on every page, or highlighting the classification name that describes the page the user is on.

    In addition, a user should be able to easily understand that they’ve already been to an area of the site.  Especially if they’re still trying to pinpoint the information they need. So try to use as much hypertext as possible as the link will change colors to indicate they’ve already been clicked.

  3. Be consistent and conventional

    Readers turn to the navigation when they’re confused or lost.  Don’t aggravate this further by using inconsistent or unfamiliar navigation design. Use the same structure in all your pages, and try to avoid using unusual types of navigation. The designer who tries to branch out and do something “new and trendy” achieves nothing except to confuse the reader. Check out the largest and highly rated websites and see how they design their navigation.  It’s OK to imitate best practices.  Readers are accustomed to seeing functionality that is commonly used across the web.

  4. Give options
    There are generally three types of users navigating a website; searchers, sorters, and browsers. Different readers have different preferences on how they like to navigate around a website, and therefore, it’s important to accommodate them with a range of navigation options.

    • Searchers: When this user comes to a website, they immediately look for the search bar. Search is a form of navigating, so including a distinct search tool somewhere around the navigation is crucial.
    • Sorters:This user is very logical.  They want to use the navigation and sort their way to the information they need. Therefore, faceted search, or sortingcapabilities are very appealing.
    • Browser: A browser uses either the search bar or navigation. But they typically like to use the banners and call-to-actions found in the body of the site.  So it’s critical to understand that these elements can sometimes be considered part of the navigation as well.
If you’re in the process of redesigning your navigation, or thinking about starting the process, consider these key points.  The trick is to make perusing your website as easy as possible for your visitors.

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