09 Jun 2015

How to improve your website navigation

As well as designing and building websites, I'm often asked to review existing sites to help improve them. One common problem I come across is poor navigation.

Navigation can make or break your website. If visitors can’t find what they are looking for, they become frustrated and leave.

This is especially the case for websites with lots of information, and many of the websites I've worked on fit into this category. While website navigation is a wide subject, there are some key principles that should be adhered to when designing a navigation structure.

The navigation should take into account the audience the website is targeted at. For example, some sites expect users that are less IT literate, and so this should be taken into account to ensure it’s as easy as possible to use, even if this means losing some more advanced functionality.

The words used for each navigation option should also be understood by the target market.

Keep it short

Don’t have too many navigation options. Research shows that humans struggle with choices involving more than five options. I try to avoid having many more than six links in a main navigation area, although this can be hard on large sites.

Secondary navigation links are very useful, helping to differentiate from other high profile links in the main navigation area. For example, the ‘contact us’ or ‘join us’ links don’t need to be in the main navigation areas, but can instead be placed slightly above or to the side, with a varied design to differentiate them. Consistency is vital when designing navigation.

Users need to feel comfortable, with navigation options than can always be found in the same place as they travel through a website.

Don't do things differently

Trying to do things differently to everyone else on your website can also cause problems, as users are used to certain conventions in website navigation. Examples of this are sites that break with the standard and use right-hand navigation.

The three clicks rule

The three clicks rule is a useful guideline when designing the different layers of navigation. While this is especially hard on very large websites, ideally a user should be able to navigate to any page on a website within three clicks.

With mobile and tablet users making up about half the audience now, ensuring that the navigation adjusts for these devices is critical. A responsive website design should have a menu that changes on smaller screens to work more effectively in the limited screen space. Good navigation is a vital part of any website build, but is essential for information-rich sites.

If your website has an analytical tool, such as Google Analytics or Piwik, then this is a great place to start looking at how users are navigating your website, and how it could be improved.

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