Your Web site is simply a means of providing access to information. As such, the single most important aspect of any site is its navigation. Bad navigation leaves the user confused, stranded, and frustrated. And in the long run that leaves your site with less repeat traffic.
For an overview of factors that make your site user-friendly, see Improve the Customer Experience on Your Web Site.
The first step in designing a navigation system that works is deciding where on the page to place it. For a long time, it was an unwritten rule of site design that navigation lived in the left-hand column. Then, with the emergence of more sophisticated design tools such as Cascading Style Sheets, some sites used the header for navigation. Doing so freed up space in the body of the home page for content and led to a new wave in site design.
These days, you’re as likely to see one as the other and, in many cases, both. How you decide to implement your navigation should be a compromise between design and content, but always remember that organization is a by-product of the content and scope of your site. If you want to employ both vertical and horizontal navigation, a good rule of thumb is to place the elements that will persist from page to page in the horizontal band across the top of the page, and put subnavigation topics in the left-hand column.
Drop-down menus can keep your navigation bar from seeming cluttered while providing more options. Drop-down menus should never go deeper than three levels. If you need more navigation after that point, provide it on the relevant landing pages.
Here are some basic rules for creating a usable navigation scheme:
- Navigation should always be the result of your site’s content, and it should further reflect the logical order of that information and its relative importance. In other words, your navigation is an outline of your site.
- Redundancy can be important. If you have two sets of navigation, not only is it acceptable to provide basic navigation in both places, it can also help ensure that users will find what they need.
- The bigger the site and the more information you have to convey, the more complex your navigation scheme will need to be.
- Never strand your user. This means ensuring that wherever someone is on your site, they can always back up to all of the following: the previous page; the parent topic of the current page (assuming there is one); all of the major sections; and, most important, the home page.
Your site’s navigation should make the most important content clearly accessible from the home page. As users drill down into the site, the navigation should remain relevant, and the user should always have backward access to top-level pages.
Also read Effective Navigation Design for Web Sites for some good advice.