Five Tips to Create Usable Website Navigation
Clear, easy-to-use navigation is probably more important than any other element of your site, including the design and content. A beautiful site that obscures its content may be good as an art project, but fails as a website. The best content, no matter how engaging or well written, is useless if it's hidden under layers of confusing clicks.
I've been involved in organizing and building dozens of websites, from university sites to financial institutions to healthcare organizations. Below are some things I've learned during that time--issues that seem to crop up during every project.
- Consolidate links when possible. As a general rule, the fewer the options, the easier the choice becomes. Often I see sites that appear to be afraid of incorrectly organizing and categorizing their content, so they simply throw all their pages in the main menu. Sometimes they do this because they want to avoid adding an "extra click" for the visitor. While they may have good intentions, the truth is that two easy choices are better than one difficult choice. If you can simplify the choices by categorizing similar pages together, do it-- even if it means adding a click.
- Links should be clearly worded and distinct from one-another. Don't make visitors use trial-and-error to find what they're looking for. If the distinction between two or more items in your navigation requires insider knowledge, you have a problem. This can sometimes feel counter-intuitive to your own employees, because they understand your internal language. Outsiders, however, don't have that benefit. This came up recently with a site we did for the South Bend Parks & Recreation Department. Internally, there are clear distinctions between "activities," "programs" and "events." Likewise, employees understand the difference between "parks" and "facilities." However, because many in their audience might be confused by those distinctions, we consolidated both areas in the main navigation. Now, visitors have one choice for things to do and another choice for places to go--they don't need to know the vocabulary to find what they're looking for.
- Drop-down menus (and other flashiness) should be optional. Effectively using drop-down menus can be a great way to categorize content and allow visitors to preview what's in a section without clicking. Likewise, other flashy transitions, pop-ups and animated components can increase the utility and effectiveness of your site. However, all these things can be troublesome if they are mandatory and/or frivolous. Most of your visitors didn't come to your site to play around with the interface. Not only are these kinds of features difficult to use on mobile devices, but they can often pose problems for visitors with disabilities. Always have another way of getting to the same information to be sure that you're not blocking certain visitors from your content.
- Ignore squeaky wheels. The content and navigation of your website should be prioritized based on external relevance, not internal politics. Almost every large organization will have one or more people and/or departments whose interest in the website far exceeds their department's relative importance to your visitors. It can be challenging, but find ways of ensuring that you don't hurt the effectiveness of your navigation to satisfy internal interests.
- Include in-site search as a backup. If you have a large site, search is incredibly important. Many people have been trained to use search instead of the site navigation to find information. Unless you have a special situation, I'd take advantage of Google's free in-site search tools. Most home-grown, or even professional in-site search packages pale in comparison to Google's technology.
All of this advice can be summarized in a single idea: consider your visitor's perspective. You know a lot more about your company than most visitors will, so you need to purposely "forget" that knowledge when building your site navigation. If you give visitors simple, easy choices that successfully guide them to their goal, they will be much more likely to become paying customers, rather than leaving your site in frustration.
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