How to build a very nice navigation

How to build a very nice navigation
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Navigation by the dictionary definition is, “the process or activity of accurately ascertaining one’s position and following a route”.  In webby terms it means exactly the same thing; helping users finds content they want quickly and easily.

Yet, I still see websites where the designers clearly don’t have a clue about how to organise their navigation. So many refuse to follow even the most common sense notions relating to getting from ‘content A’ to ‘content B’.
Seriously, it keeps me awake at night. Navigation nightmares.

Good navigation is THE most important part of creating usable and accessible websites. If users can’t find the information they want quickly, they’ll leave your site and find another. Here are a few rules that (in my humble opinion) every navigation should follow:

1. Home sweet Home

Yes, it’s lovely that your logo takes users back to the Home page, but you still need to have a Home button. Yes, you do. Don’t argue.

2. Primary versus secondary

Don’t just shove everything in your main navigation; instead, try to be a little discerning. Do you really need to feature your Privacy Policy, Terms and Conditions, site map and corporate info right at the top of the page? No, you don’t – they can all go at the bottom.

You should limit your primary navigation to around six or seven terms, and ensure you choose terms that are general enough to allow you to include subsections. ‘About’, for example, is lovely and general; you can put loads underneath it: History, Team, Overview, Careers, Corporate, Location and so on.

3. Left beats top beats right

Designers like horizontal navigations; they look nice and divide all the fiddly bits at the top from all the contenty bits in the middle, but they can be a bit short sited (sic). Only choose a horizontal navigation if you’re 100%, absolutely, definitely, never ever going to add another element to your primary nav.

Trying to shoe-horn a new navigation item into a well-proportioned design looks poop. Vertical navigations take up a lot of space but they give scope for greater flexibility later down the track.

On English-language-based websites, people read from left to right and generally prefer to read the navigation first and then the content. Also, if your site is designed at 1024 x768 resolution and your user is viewing it 800×600, they might not see your navigation at all.

4. Three-click rule

When I was a slim, young thing, the mantra was the ‘three-click-rule’ – all content should be accessible in only three clicks. Is this still doable in this day and age? I think so.

5. Choose your navigation terms carefully

Navigations are often one of the first things search spiders see on your website but, that said, it’s really hard to keyword saturate them.
My advice is:

  • Stick to short, descriptive and intuitive navigation terms; remember that web users don’t like to read.
  • Try to keep all terms a similar length so it looks neater.
  • Don’t use ‘us’ or ‘our’. ‘About’ is just as good as ‘About us’, ‘Contact’ is as compelling as ‘Contact us’ and ‘Solutions’ works fine as a replacement for ‘Our solutions’.

6. HTML navigation is best

Spiders like them and so do I. HTML navigations rock. Don’t waste your precious page K on graphics with gradient backgrounds and a flourish in each corner or an elaborate Flash navigation that takes longer to load than the content.

If you can’t bring yourself to have a no-frills HTML navigation at the top of your page (or if you’re using JavaScript), at least do yourself a favour and repeat the navigation at the bottom in HTML.

7. Don’t drop down too far

A drop-down menu below each navigation item, or an expanding navigation that grows as you click, is a great way to slowly reveal subsections. However, in my opinion, one level of drop-down is sufficient. I loathe those tricky drop-down, third-level navigations that require the dexterity of a pianist to negotiate. It seems that just as you get your mouse in the right spot they close up again. Infuriating.

8. Don’t rely on the ‘back’ button

I’ve often wanted to smack the bottom of a designer or producer who, when I ask: “But where do I go from this page? It’s a dead end.” answers me with: “Well, you just press the back button.’” No, no, NO. If a user has to resort to using the browser buttons to get around your silly site then that’s a big navigation fail.

9. Breadcrumb trails

Well, that’s what I call them… I’m refering to those trails of navigation terms that show your journey through the site. These are useful, but only if your site is more than three levels deep; otherwise, they’re a waste of time and effort.

10. It’s more than just the navigation

If your site is good, and I mean really good, people won’t use the navigation at all. How do you achieve this? Well, you can try:

  • Creating a single-minded Home page that leaves the user in no doubt as to where to go next.
  • Ensuring every page contains contextual links via images, copy hyperlinks and prominent calls to action.
  • Avoiding dead end pages (such as Contact or Thank You pages) by providing users with options for where to go next. For example: “Thanks for registering. Now, how about you check out our hot new range of rubber panties <link to rubberpanties.html>?”
  • Adding site promotion ads or links somewhere on the page. (I prefer the right hand side.) In a perfect world these will be auto generated by content tags, but even a nice little list of links to ‘other stuff’ will help.
  • Including a search box (that works). These days, we’re all Search engine junkies, who’d rather type a known a brand name into Google than just enter the URL – even when we know it. If your site is big enough, you ought to index your content carefully and include a search function on every page.

There are, of course, more than ten things to remember when structuring your site navigation, but these should get you started.

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