Navigation: The Big Scary Monster?

Are you scaring people away from your website?!

Pretty much any website designer will agree with me that clear, consistent navigation is key to making a website usable.

But a couple of client meetings recently have got me thinking about this.  Often a website will have grown over time, and the obvious thing to do, when new content is created, is to create a new page, link it from the main menu, and hey presto, job done!

Over time, this can result in an unwieldy beast of a website, with masses of valuable content, but no clear direction to the user as to where they should go.  ‘No clear direction?’, I hear you saying, ‘But you just said everything was linked from the main navigation.  Surely that’s clear direction!’.

Nope.  Sorry, but for the vast majority of people**, being faced with a huge swathe of menu options is overwhelming – particularly if you’re just ‘browsing’.  Imagine if the BBC linked all their website content from the main homepage.  That would be one big menu!

So what’s the answer?

Here is one approach:

1. Get rid of the Big Scary Monster

Strip down the main menu to what’s really important, or the ‘main categories’ of content.  Use drop down menus where necessary, but beware of turning that menu into a big scary monster!

2. Add a Functional Menu?

Consider having a separate, smaller ‘functional’ menu (you’ll often see them in the top right hand corner of the screen), for important but ‘functional’ stuff – often for existing customers.  Things that might go on your functional menu – ‘login’, ‘about us’, ‘contact us’.

3. Page specific menus

Although I’ve always been a big believer in consistent navigation across a website, this doesn’t mean to say that you can’t have page specific menus where appropriate.  The key here is to keep these secondary menus consistent in style and position, and keep them consistent for a given group of pages.

For example, you may have ten pages which are all about the history, ethos, and background to your organisation.  Rather than having ‘About Us’ with a drop down of 10 items in the main menu, how about ‘About Us’ simply linking to a page with an introductory paragraph and a secondary menu, either above the text or in a side column, with all those ten pages listed.  That secondary menu remains consistent across those 10 pages.

That way, the user is less likely to be overwhelmed (and thus not read any of the content) – they’ve only got one option in the main menu to click.  When they click, they’ve got some introductory text to read if they want to, and they’ve got the 10 options immediately available.

4. Sign Post

Use banners and side columns to ‘sign-post’.  Don’t fill these with rubbish!  And don’t overload them.  But a header banner and a side column offer valuable opportunities to point people to where you want them to go.  A header banner will be one of the first things the user sees – so think carefully about your main goal for that page, and focus the banner on that.

The side column is a great place to sign post to resources (linked to the content within the main page body), linked or related posts/content, and to give a subscription option – email newsletter sign-up for example.  In other words, it’s there waiting for people to finish reading and giving them some ‘what do you want to do now?’ options.

5. Use Editorial Links

This leads on from the ‘what do you want to do now?’ point.  Stuff in the side column can often be overlooked by the user.  But if they’re reading your page or post, they will likely notice any links you put within the content.  This takes time and effort, but it’s worth doing. [Note to self here!!!]  Often a link at the end of the post, to a related article or page, will prove very effective in keeping the user interested – at the point at which the natural ‘next action’ is to hit the back button.

This works well in conjunction with the page specific menus described above.  At the end of each ‘sub-page’, have a sentence which leads the user onto the next obvious page.  That way, they’ll be navigating through the content, without even realising they’re using a navigation system.  It’s an approach that’s very much akin to flipping through the pages in a book, rather than looking everything up in the index or table of contents.

Now go do!

I hope that’s useful… now try applying that to your own website!

** There are people who prefer this way of doing things, and like every single option presented to them from the outset.  But I’d argue that even then, you need to show them (albeit in a subconscious way), which are the important options.  So if they don’t have a pre-conceived idea of where to go, you’re giving them some subtle guidance.


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