Designing simple, intuitive, easy-to-use navigation for Web sites isn’t just a good idea: It’s good business. If you make it easy for users to find what they want on your Web site, they will reward you by coming back again and again. And designing good primary navigation — the tabs, buttons, or text links that point to the most important areas of your site — does not require a degree in computer science; all it takes is some common sense. Your site navigation will succeed to the extent that it:
1. Tells users what’s on the site, and
2. Helps them get what they want, quickly and easily
When designing a navigation scheme, start with a site map. If you have a small site, be able to sketch out all the pages of your site; if it’s a larger site, write down the names of the various categories of pages on your site.
Your site map should give you a good idea of what your main navigation categories should be. Each main category will get its own tab, button, or link in your navigation scheme. Shoot for six or eight main categories, and never exceed ten. Users will get overwhelmed when confronted with too many choices.
If you find you need more than ten different tabs, try and winnow down your site architecture. Maybe some of your main categories should actually be subcategories of one of your main sections, and maybe some areas can be relegated to secondary navigation. Help, About Us, Shopping Cart, and similar areas are all good candidates for secondary navigation links.
Once you have compiled your list of sections, you will need to decide how to present them. Top-tab navigation and left-side button navigation are the two most popular schemes for a reason: they work, and Web users are comfortable with them. Look around at some of your favorite sites of various sizes and see what navigations schemes are out there. Then check out the sites of your competitors and other companies in your industry and see what the conventions are.
Are there similarities among all the sites in your industry? If so, there may be good reason. Maybe a particular organizing principle lends itself to your type of site. If you have a better way of presenting your navigation scheme, by all means, do it. But do not be different for the sake of being different. You may lose some users just by using an unconventional navigation scheme.
Be extremely judicious in the use of “fancy” navigation techniques. These may include Flash graphics, dynamic “flying” menus, or potentially confusing graphics in lieu of simple text. There is no law against making your site aesthetically pleasing. Just do not do it at the expense of ease of use.
That brings us to another important point about Web design: your site exists for your customers, not for you. Sure, you may own it and maintain it, but the site only exists to help your users get what they want: your products, service, or information. You designed your site, so of course you know how to get around it. But put yourself in the place of an “average” user. Can an Internet novice figure out how to get around your site easily? If not, you may be cutting yourself off from your potential customers.
One overlooked means of gaining insight into designing your navigation is to check your traffic logs. What pages are people visiting most often? Do these pages have prominence in your navigation? Remember, the user knows what they want better than you do, and the more easily they can get it, the happier they will be with your site and your company. Another overlooked necessity is redundant navigation; the more ways people can get to a given page, the more likely they are to get there. This means making use of both vertical and horizontal navigation.
Once you have settled on a navigation design, implement it consistently throughout your site. All text and graphics must behave in the same way. Once you set a user’s expectation, you have got to maintain it. The “Home” button has to always take a user back to your home page, and the “Contact” link should always take users to the same place: to a help page or an e-mail link, but not both. Consistency is key.
The beauty of the Web is that it puts the world at your fingertips. You can sell your products worldwide, no matter where you are. But this cuts both ways: Customers from around the globe can find you, but they can find your competitors, too. But a well-designed Web site can help make sure you — and not your competitors — get the sale.