The User Experience of Navigation Design

by | February 16th, 2012

Your website’s navigation is one of the few interactive elements that remain consistent throughout the entire experience of browsing through your website. As a primary browsing tool, its structure needs to be intuitive and fluid, so end-users are always able to rely on it to get where they need to go.

Here are a few things to consider when putting together your website’s navigation:

1. Let your Navigation Flow Organically

It’s important to have a good understanding of what your audience wants to get from visiting your website. Using analytics (such as Google Analytics) may help you understand pages your users are visiting and what they’re searching for to land on your site. But if you have the resources and time, we highly recommend sitting down and speaking to your end users. Understand what it is they’re looking for – How do they get there? Did they find what they need? Did they encounter any errors or confusions on the way?

Aggregating this type of data will come a long way; it’ll help you understand general user task flow and help you understand their language and motivations. It will also play a key role in prioritizing navigation categories:

  • If giving your users some background on your company or your website is essential, make that first category in your nav. For example, for some biotech companies, we’ve found that end-users need to understand what the company and/or product is about before viewing a given product or service. In such cases, having an About or Company as your first category in the navigation will make the most sense.
  • Sometimes, informational pages are not as important as showing your main conversion right away. For example, on E-commerce websites, users are generally looking to shop for products or services once they land on your site, not read about your company. Your navigation should dive straight into that.

UX Movement has a great article on the strategies behind good navigation organization.

 

2. Design and Use the Right Language For Category Labels

Ideally in the information gathering phase of your project, you’ve also come to understand the type of language your end-users are using or the keywords they input before landing on your site. If, say, your users are investors, then the labels of your navigation items should lean towards the types of terminology that investors are familiar with. By incorporating their language and keywords in your navigation labels, you’re also optimizing your site for SEO.

Also with navigation design in mind, make sure that your labels for categories have generally similar character and word count. If one of your labels is “About” and another is “Products and Services”, there’s an uneven distribution of weight placed on these labels, and a user’s eye gaze may gravitate towards the longer item, whether or not that’s what you intended.

In general, designing navigation for design’s sake should be avoided. A navigation is the support system of the website, and certainly not the primary element — and therefore should not command a user’s attention any more than a car dashboard distracts a driver from the road. In short, good navigation design tends to be subtle and even understated, but its usability and form is critical to the success of a website.

Architecting and designing navigation can be difficult sometimes, but dedicating some time to plan and organize could reap some awesome returns. This important piece of a website could greatly improve browsing experience and result in happier end-users overall.



  • Great post and points. It’s funny; often times we overthink things that are meant to be kept simple and end up trying to impress the visitor with our creative prowess in the wrong areas.

    Making an impact and being unique is important, but not at the expense of usability. When a visitor is comfortable and doesn’t have to think, we all win.

  • I’m just starting a website and your article helped me out. I will definitely try Google Analytics.

    Thanks again.

  • I had no idea about the category labels, thanks for the article.