Why navigation is extremely important when building your website

Navigation is how people understand and move around your website. Good navigation makes the whole process easy and smooth.

By George Haddon-Hartle

Good navigation makes the whole process easy and smooth. Bad navigation is frustrating and can lead to a loss of sales.

A navigation menu is a set of directions

Think of the navigation on your website as a map or set of directions. The clearer a set of directions are, the easier it is to reach your destination. The same applies for the navigation on a website: if it’s clear and makes sense then people will know exactly where they need to go to get exactly what they want.

According to some research done by Forrester Research, 50% of potential sales are lost because users can’t find the right information. That means almost half of the people that visit your website could potentially leave without doing what they came to do: buy your product or services. That’s a lot of people not buying from your company and it can all be avoided through the use of good navigation.

With that in mind, Navigation should follow these principles.

13 Key principles of good website navigation

1. Logical

Navigation should be easy to use and make sense. The last thing you want is for people to stop and figure out where it is they want to go – this is too much like hard work, and they’ll likely backtrack off your website.

Visitors should look at the navigation menu and think “ah, that’s what I wanted”. They should be able to find the information they need all by themselves.

As an extra note, you should never have multiple links leading to the same page – this is just confusing!

2. Intuitive

People like it when things work how they expect them to. With navigation, sticking with conventions and trends is key. Web users visit multiple web sites each day and if you’re the only one with different navigation that feels wrong to them, you can bet they won’t be coming back any time soon.

Your navigation should consider how the user thinks, what steps they will take to find what they’re looking, and then cater to that. That way, your website will automatically feel intuitive to people.

3. Structured: main and sub navigation

Structure is essential to making your website understandable and easy-to-use. It would be a very bad idea to list all of your pages separately in your navigation – the list would get far too unwieldly and overwhelming for people to find what they need.

For this reason, it’s logical to organise things under main headings and sub headings. A good example of a main heading would be “Services” with sub headings denoting the different services on offer. To just list these services in the main navigation, unless you had only one or two services, would lead to clutter.

This structure lets people easily move around the website and organise it in their own heads.

4. Distinct

It should be very obvious on your website just where your navigation menu is. There’s nothing worse than being stuck on a homepage, searching high and low for a navigation menu and having to head back to Google to look for a website that makes sense.

Make sure people can find your navigation menu easily.

5. Clear

In the same way that people should be able to find your navigation easily, they should also be able to understand it easily. Headings and subheadings should be clear, setting out what each page will offer. Don’t be ambiguous and ask visitors to guess what’s on a webpage – tell them!

6. Simple

Complexity requires more brain work. Brain work takes effort and people are lazy. A simple navigation structure will ensure people understand your website and that it’s easy to use. Keeping it simple will also help with the general user experience of your website.

7. Consistent

No matter where people are on your website the navigation should be in the same place and look the same. If navigation suddenly changes, information that people have stored about your website changes. This confuses them and requires brain work to figure out. Don’t do this!

8. Ordered

Psychology has proved that people remember things that occur at the beginning and the end – it’s called the primacy and regency effect. People tend to forget what happens in the middle. In terms of navigation, this means you should put the most important things first with the least important things in the middle. Something important such as “Contact” should come at the end.

9. Accessible

We’ve talked a lot about why accessibility is good for website design and business in general and navigation is no different. Navigation should work the same across all browsers, devices, without a mouse, and for people that have difficulty reading text.

This isn’t only good practice, it’s good for SEO.

10. Clickable

Every item within your navigation menu should be clickable. People expect it. When they click a link in a navigation menu and nothing happens people get confused. Confusion leads to brain work…and brain work isn’t good when it comes to keeping people on your website!

11. Visual

Visual navigation is much more easily understood, especially seeing as our brains process visual information much faster than textual. Including obvious icons or visuals alongside your textual navigation content can help your website’s navigation be clearer and more intuitive.

12. Responsive

People access the web through a range of different devices nowadays and having a navigation that works only on one device is unacceptable in the world of modern web design. A responsive navigation should scale to the screen size but it shouldn’t have a different structure. If you change the structure of your navigation for each device, people will be very confused and frustrated if they access our website from different devices.

13. Tested

Testing is the only way to guarantee navigation that works. Ask people to test your navigation menu. This can be friends and family but ideally it should be people from your target audience.

Watch what they do when they go through your website, analyse how much time it took them to find the pages they were looking for, and ask them how they felt about the navigation afterwards.

Summary

Navigation is one of the foundations of a website. It can make or break a website, either encouraging people to carry on or put people off and send them elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to change your navigation – just remember to test it!

If you are looking for inspiration for your new website or navigation menu, feel free to check out our portfolio. We’ve designed a real variety of websites for a range of industries.

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About the Author

George is a CSS Ninja. This means he can build anything to be pixel perfect to the design. George is in the records books for having the longest name in known history and also likes Pi. It takes approximately 3.142 years to type his email address.

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