When designing a website, the most important element is the navigation menu. It is responsible for guiding users to each part of the website and is the most interacted with part of the user experience. The navigation’s ease of use will have a great effect on conversion rates, as users who become frustrated with the navigation will quickly begin to look elsewhere, often avoiding a hard to traverse website altogether in the future. Poor navigation can seep into brand perception. So a quick way to ruin a user’s experience and send them fleeing from your site to a competitor's is to welcome them with an overwhelming navigation menu. Users become perplexed when their path becomes convoluted by copious amounts of links, confusing verbiage and positioning, or over-extravagant animations. Improving user experience by offering simplified navigation that provides clarity to the user experience can go a long way in avoiding user frustration. In other words, the goal should be to make it easy for them to find the information they came looking for. To help avoid a bad user experience, we’ve put together a list of some of the best practices in navigation design that can help build navigation that provides a clear path for users to travel to get where they want to go. Most of these can be implemented fairly quickly, and while it is best to consider these when beginning the design process, the majority can be utilized on active websites as well.
If you want to improve user experience then your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for them to find the information they came looking for in the first place.
Consider the ContentBefore beginning to think of what links to include the content must first be organized, creating logical groupings of all pages into categories and subcategories. If need be, create a site map diagram to visualize the hierarchy of the content. Be sure to keep the users in mind when doing this, recognizing that how they would structure the content might be different than what someone inside the profession would. Once the content is organized it can be arranged into categories in order of importance. Categories deemed most crucial would be those that are important to all users, followed by those that are important to some, but not all, users. The last tier of categories will include content that does not get a lot of hits but is still a necessary piece of the puzzle. If an active website is using analytics it can act as a guide as to what categories should fall under what tiers of importance.
Universal NavigationProbably the most important factor in proper navigation design is positioning the menu in the same location on all pages. By keeping the location consistent users are given a spot where they know they can go to if they need to go somewhere else on the site. Most websites will have a bar at or near the top of their pages, while the majority of those that do not place them on the left. While exact position is not the same, what will be found on any good navigation menu is that the position stays the same and that they contain links to the important categories of the site.
Rule of SevenAnother way to make navigation easier for the user is limit the options to select from. With a smaller selection, the user has less of a chance of skipping over important items as they scan over the list of links. Psychology experiments have come to show that the average human mind can store an average of seven items at a time, so that should be the maximum number of items in navigation. More often than not this is more than substantial, and if an even smaller number can be used then all the better! If there are issues dropping the number of navigation items down, try moving some of the ones of lesser importance to other areas. For example, as it is fairly standard for a website’s logo to link to the home page it should not be a problem to remove a similar link from the navigation. Another option would be to move utility links, such as Contact Us or Login, to an area above the primary navigation.
- Indicate a submenu - The best drop-down menus have some sort of visual hint (typically a small arrow) that a submenu is present. Without these a user may never realize that there are more options available to them, or may waste valuable time testing each link to see if a menu appears.
- Make them usable - When developing drop-downs, be sure that the submenu remains visible for a fraction of a second after the user leaves it, as this allows them a grace period in case they overshoot the area with their cursor. The same should be done for when they initially hover over the top-level link. This ensures that they intend on displaying a submenu, rather than having them display on accident. That being said, submenus should be hidden immediately when another one is being displayed.
- Don’t over-crowd - The same principle applies to submenus as it does to main navigation. Be sure that only a handful of links are listed in each submenu to limit the options the user needs to choose from.
- Limit to a single sub-level - Working with two levels of navigation can be a nuisance on its own. It is very seldom, if ever, that a third tier provides a beneficial user experience.
Succinct Link LabelsIt can be a daunting task when deciding on labels for navigation links. First off they need to be relatively short in length in order to accommodate all of the other labels, but also so that they are easily read as users skim over them. In addition to this, the labels need to be descriptive so that the user has a clear idea of where they will be going if they select it. Because of this, labels such as “Products”, “Services”, and “What We Do” do not do much for telling the user anything about where they’re going. While they know what sort of information they are about to view these labels are still somewhat vague. In addition to being only marginally helpful to users, these sorts of generic labels are almost useless when it comes to SEO. Valuable link juice is being used up on generic terms that are not going to be helpful to rankings. If the site’s main products or services can be listed in the navigation, the user will be able to quickly determine more specifically what sort of information they will find than they would with generic labels. Be careful not to use words or acronyms that are only understood in the company or industry, as they may be foreign to the average user and/or your target audience. Using tools such as the Google Keyword Planner to determine commonly searched keywords and keyphrases can help in selecting succinct labels for navigation.
For innovation to succeed it must solve a pain point or create a better overall user experience.