Creating a website menu or navigation system is one of the most fundamental and crucial tasks in the Web development process. The menu and other navigation is a road map people use to find their way around your website, therefore it must be well constructed, easy to use, comprehensive, and intuitive. A poorly constructed navigation can cause confusion and frustration for end users. A good website menu is generally a reflection of good information architecture and will give visitors confidence in the site.
There are many differing opinions about website navigation issues, and of course every site is different, however, for most sites, there is a common set of purposes and principles that should be followed to help ensure good usability. The following should not be construed as an exhaustive list, simply a starting point to help website stake holders think through site menu and navigation. Designing website navigation with the following principles in mind will help ensure that the site purposes are clearly communicated to the end-user to ultimately facilitate better ease-of-use and higher conversion rates.
Purposes of Website Menus
There are four main purposes to website menus or navigation:
- Help visitors find what they are looking for. The menu and other navigation elements should let people know what is available on your site.
- Tell visitors where they are. As visitors browse around the site, a quick glance at a well designed navigation should indicate where they are within the structure, or information architecture, of the site. This is frequently accomplished with highlighted menu items, tab structures, breadcrumbs, or other visual queues.
- Tell visitors how to use the site. A good menu should be intuitive for users and should help them know how to use the content and features they want quickly and without the need for additional instructions.
- Give visitors a reference point. Whether visitors drill down into sub-pages of the site, or if the deep link into your site by coming from a search engine or other website, the menu serves as a beacon, or frame of reference. You want visitors to know how to get “home” and what other related content is available on the site, and if you’re lucky, they’ll want to know how to access it. The navigation should provide such knowledge and orientation.
Principles of Usable Website Menu Design
Here are seven high level principles to follow in creating user friendly menus and navigation:
- Provide a consistent global navigation. Inconsistent navigation, removing menu options, and other changes in site navigation between pages can confuse and frustrate users. Be consistent across your site so regardless of what page users are on or how they got to the site there is a clear path to high-level destinations, as well as a way back home. Being able to quickly navigate to all major site sections will help visitors see more of the available information and features.
- Site search prominence. A large percentage of users’ first act on a website is to find and use the internal site search feature. Giving search-oriented users what they want is a simple formula: a text box, a button, and the word “search.” Studies show users know what to do from there.
- Use words people use. Be clear in your labels and do not use company-specific jargon. Titles of menu links should be short, descriptive, and intuitive. Users should easily understand what every link leads to (i.e. information scent).
- Link to popular content and features. A study should be made of the content and features most used or desired by end-users, and links to those should be placed prominently in the navigation. These decisions may also be business driven; if there are key sections and features that you want to steer visitors to, then make them prominent in the menus.
- Breadcrumbs are good, but not enough. Breadcrumbs show users how they got to a section but they do not communicate where visitors are in the overall scheme of the site. Like a road map, the menu should always make it clear where you are, what other destinations are available, that you can get between points with relative ease, and that you can easily go back to where you came from.
- Conventions are your friend: Use them. Every publishing medium has conventions, and the Web has plenty of it’s own and some it has borrowed (shopping carts, site IDs, logos, even newspaper-like headlines). Conventions are useful because they provide a reassuring sense of familiarity and communicate how things work quickly and without additional explanation. Straying from the use of conventions can render features unfindable for users. For example, items that can be clicked should look clickable (underlined text or graphics that clearly look like buttons), and the use of different colored links for items that have been clicked helps visitors remember where they have previously been and explore new areas.
- Separate utilities from the main menu. Utilities are links to important features that aren’t really part of the content hierarchy. They are things like help sections, FAQs, contact information, and perhaps even the shopping cart. The utilities should be easily findable, but should be less prominent than the major sections of the global navigation.
- Only site content goes in the site menu. The purpose of a site’s main menu is to help visitors find the content within that site. Links to other websites are not appropriate in a site’s main menu. When linking to other sites, do so within the content section of the web page and not from the menu.