Website menus - helping your visitors navigate the maze

By Joe Bell

Intuitive website navigation is essential for a good visitor-experience. What steps can you take to ensure that users can easily find the information they need?

Steve Krug suggests that navigating through a website is a lot like shopping in a supermarket, searching along each aisle. When you think you've found the right category, you look for individual products and if you've got it wrong you try another aisle, often fuming with frustration.

Information architecture

Visitors who are unable to find content on your website are unhappy or worse, angry and frustrated with your organisation. There is no need for this. Good information architecture and therefore intuitive website navigation can be achieved with a little bit of forward planning. The best way to start creating a navigational system is to brainstorm the information you think your visitors will want to find and then put it in logical groups. This process can be done quite easily using the card sorting technique; writing page names onto separate cards and organising them by categories.

Think carefully about your potential visitors, do they fall into logical groups, for example who are your stakeholders? Will your staff be using the website and what are their needs? What information do specific user groups require? The best way to do this is to ask them. This does not have to be an elaborate user survey, though they can be very helpful, by asking just a few, say five, representatives of each of your user groups you can establish the vast majority of their information needs. Once you have done this you will find that the information you need to publish tends to bunch into logical groups.

As time goes by, some standard labels have developed for specific information that most website users recognise and understand. These include "about" or "about us", "careers" or "recruitment" and "contact" or "contact us". Using these familiar labels helps your user by reducing the amount of learning they have to do to use your website.

Design issues

Once you have established the navigation framework of your website you need to consider design. Inconsistent navigation design is another source of confusion and frustration for website visitors. Consistent website menu design makes the learning experience of using a website much faster and will make the user feel more comfortable in their surroundings.

Horizontal navigation

A navigation bar at the top of the page is one of the most common forms of navigation, with companies such as GEOAmey using this format. The left-to-right organisation of the menu means that it is incredibly easy to scan across and find the category required.

Vertical navigation

According to Jakob Nielsen's eye tracking study of 2006, users read web content in an F-shaped pattern, similarly to a book. Everybody (in the western countries that read left to right) tends to focus more on the left hand side of the page.

Importantly left hand vertical navigation is flexible; allowing room for long menu section names and the addition of more sections should this be needed in the future (horizontal menu's can be very restrictive if later on you realise you need to add another section). The Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner website uses vertical navigation making more efficient use of space on the screen and allowing for some long menu titles. The Surrey and Sussex probation trust also uses vertical navigation in a different way to make maximum use of the use of the space on the screen. Sub-navigation (navigation within a section is signposted within the design ensuring that the user has a concrete idea of their position within the navigation at all times, giving visitors a positive experience of using the website.

Mobile navigation

Last month, 13.1% of our website visitors used a mobile device. The rise in tablet sales has also added to the increase in mobile web browsing which underlines the importance of implementing responsive designs to make sure that all users have a positive experience of using your website.

One of the most significant changes from a desktop layout to a mobile layout is the method of navigation. Some of the most common methods of mobile navigation include; drop-down menus (Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust) and sliding menus (Facebook). I prefer drop-down menus for smart phones as it is more intuitive, sliding menus can be distracting or daunting for less technically adept visitors, whereas drop-down menus are more intuitive resulting in your visitor spending less time worrying about how to use the menu and more time focusing on helping them find the content they need.

Mobile navigation

Last month, 13.1% of our website visitors used a mobile device. The rise in tablet sales has also added to the increase in mobile web browsing which underlines the importance of implementing responsive designs to make sure that all users have a positive experience of using your website.

One of the most significant changes from a desktop layout to a mobile layout is the method of navigation. Some of the most common methods of mobile navigation include; drop-down menus (Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust) and sliding menus (Facebook). I prefer drop-down menus for smart phones as it is more intuitive, sliding menus can be distracting or daunting for less technically adept visitors, whereas drop-down menus are more intuitive resulting in your visitor spending less time worrying about how to use the menu and more time focusing on helping them find the content they need.

Avoid hover menus

Hover menus are found on many sites across the website and in many cases, these are inaccessible for visitors with physical, cognitive or visual difficulties. Hover menus are slow and hard to navigate, often leading to frustration when users cannot get to the information they require.

Taking the time to plan your website information architecture and navigation system pays dividends later on. Happy relaxed visitors spend more time looking at your website and leave with a positive experience of interacting with your organisation which will influence their opinion and the opinion of the people they talk to about your website.

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Joe Bell of Ecru Joe Bell of Ecru

This article was written by Joe Bell of Ecru. If you have any questions regarding this article or would like to discuss your next web site project please call us on 0800 0433 963 or get in touch via our contact form.

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