Competition on the web is intense: Users know that if one site seems a little hard to use, another is just a click away. And click they do. A visitor who is even a little annoyed or confused is a visitor who is gone. Navigation is such an critical topic that every business owner should know enough about it. Ultimately, your ability to reel in business may rest on visitors’ ability to navigate your site easily.
It’s very simple. Users want to know:
Where am I?
Where can I go?
How can I get back?
There are many ways to accomplish this. The nature, complexity and objectives of your site will determine what’s best for you. Here are the various types of navigation in use today:
Hyperlinks simply take the reader to another page. But embedded links do little to help the user understand where they are or how the information in the site is organized.
“Bread crumbs” – As you navigate down a branch of the hierarchy, each step of your journey is reflected on the page like a trail of bread crumbs. You see it in information-rich sites, such as Yahoo! It’s clear, but forces the user to backtrack to see what else is on the site; like an radiating subway system, where you have to return to the main station to get on another line.
Nav bars have become nearly universal on the Web. Generally nav bars appear across the top or down the left side of the screen. Some people argue that while nav bars are great for lateral navigation, they aren’t used much since most people tend to drill down on a single topic that’s the focus of their interest.
Popup menus and submenus are a subset of the nav bar and address issues of how to navigate the deeper reaches of the site. There are advantages and disadvantages to both popups and submenus. Popup menus (example: ADR) save screen space, allow users to quickly scan the entire site and click directly between subsections without backtracking. Unfortunately, they don’t work on every system and they hide content, in that links are only visible when the user’s mouse is on the menu. If you have room on the screen, consider Submenus (example: The Business Resource Group, click on “What we do”) – they serve as a constant reminder of other content in the section. But you can usually only see the submenu for one section at a time.
Site Maps are often used for supplementary navigation. Some users find site maps convenient, since they provide one-click access to the entire site.
Image maps were once very popular, but they are usually graphically intensive without adding much useful information. One major exception: They are absolutely the best tool for physical location (find a store in a mall, etc.)
“How do I” menus are sometimes offered as a supplement to the main navigation and are oriented to answering the user’s needs. For example, a banking site might have a list that starts “How do I…” and then a pulldown list with options like “open a new account” “get my current balance” etc. This simple step makes a site seem more personalized and encourages visitors to start viewing themselves in the role of client, but it requires you to learn what your USERS want to do on your site, not what YOU want them to do.
Search may be the most popular and arguably the most effective means of navigation because of specificity.
Personalized navigation is extremely effective on sites like Amazon, where every page includes links to products you’ve viewed, things you might want to see, etc.
Combo – this is what you will probably end up with – some combination of hyperlinks, nav bars, submenus, etc. in order to give your users the most options and flexibility.
Now, we’ll discuss how to decide what navigation is best for your site.
Start with the customer
Put yourself if his shoes. What are his problems and goals? He has some kind of pain and he wants to know if you have the cure. A typical nav bar might have links such as “Services” and “Products.” But in reality, the customer may not know or care if the solution to their problem involves a service or a product – he just wants an answer. You might choose, for example, to have sections for “Retail solutions” and “Wholesale solutions.” Each of those sections may contain both services and products, but to the customer it doesn’t matter – he knows where to look for an answer to his question.
How many clicks?
It’s a balancing act – The more links you have on a page, the fewer clicks it takes to reach any page. But too many links is confusing; important information may be missed in the clutter. Conversely, if a site’s structure is too deep, the number of clicks needed to reach a page becomes excessive. Go back to the user again. What parts of the site are of greatest interest? Make those sections prominent – one click from the home page. Less critical sections can be moved deeper. For example, say you have a technology product for sale. An area of great interest would be a page describing the product’s benefits. White papers and technological specifications are less critical. By the time you have someone reading your specs, you’ve got their interest. A few extra clicks are not going to drive them away.
All links are not created equal
One common mistake is making all the links look the same. Use navigation design to gently guide your visitors to the most important information. One way to do this is through grouping. Your products, services and solutions are probably the most important. These links should be grouped together prominently. Links such as “About us” “Contact” “Customer Service” etc., are not central to the customer’s primary need. They can be grouped separately – still available but not distracting from the main act.
Offer more than one path
By providing more than one pathway through the site, you expand your opportunities to entice customers. On the most basic level, this means that if you use a graphic menu, also provide a text menu for visitors who have difficulty with graphics. If you use pop-up menus, provide alternate submenus so that if the pop-ups can’t be accessed, visitors can still navigate the site. But beyond that, consider in-house ads – little invitations to draw people to particularly interesting content. Or a list of activities to guide visitors, such as “I need to… Sell my business, Buy a business, Do market research, etc.”
Be straightforward and consistent
Finally, make sure your links are labeled clearly and consistently. There is a strong tendency to want to be “clever” but I urge you to avoid the temptation. Call the link to your online trip planner “Trip Planner” not “Concierge.”
This month, take a look at your site with outside eyes. Is it clear what is the most important thing on the site? Are customers’ concerns directly addressed? Is the navigation easy to sort out at a glance? If not, then maybe it’s time to rethink how you’re baiting the hook.