Web site navigation needs rethinking

Visitors to your web site will be looking for guidance as to where to go next. Traditionally, this has meant that web sites have a menu of options across the top or down the left hand side. Indeed, eye-tracking studies show that this is precisely where people look first for information, so it makes sense to put the navigation where they will notice it.

Which way do you want people to travel on your web site?

Which way do you want people to travel on your web site?

But is that actually the most sensible thing to do? Most web site navigation offers text based “labels” that make sense to the web site owner. Hopefully, too, they make some sense to the visitors as well. Standards have emerged, such as “About Us” or “Contact” which take you to much the same kind of information, regardless of who put the site together. Similarly we all know what “Home” means.

However, here’s the problem; many people find processing the words cumbersome and slow. These people process information visually and would therefore be able to respond more quickly if the menu labels were pictures. Some sites attempt to resolve this with little icons of a house for the home page, or a telephone icon for the contact page. The difficulty for web designers is creating icons that are meaningful for every possible menu option. Plus, the icons can be off-putting to those people who are not visual processors.

Some people think in a sequential manner and want your navigation to be numbered in the order in which the pages should be visited. Other people are what might be called “deep” processors who want an explanation of what is on each of the pages. Instead of simply saying “Contact”, they want to know what the “Contact” page will show – they need a line or two of explanation.

And as for the people who are more spatially aware, they may prefer a 3D approach, showing where each page fits within the overall scheme of things.

Different people process information in different ways and the traditional “menu at the top” or “menu down the left” approaches (as used on this site) only really satisfy one way of thinking. One of the key issues in usability is to ensure that people can find their way around a site. Yet if your menu system doesn’t offer a means of navigating that deals with different thinking styles, you aren’t offering the widest possible usability – and we haven’t even considered how you might make navigation accessible to people with any kind of disability.

So why is this all important? After all, many web sites manage quite well with the “standard” navigation. Well they have thus far. But what is clear is the growing requirement for “instant” gratification. If it takes a a second or two extra for a visual thinker to translate your text-based labels into mental images, there’s a danger they will give up on your site and go elsewhere. In other words, if you want to retain the largest possible readership for your web site you cannot afford to ignore the different thinking and mental processing styles your visitors will have.

It means you need the standard label based navigation, but also visual navigation. You need some kind of spacial representation of your web site as well as what might be called “detailed” navigation for the deeper thinkers. No longer can you simply provide navigation the way it has been done for years. And I’m not the only person to think this; a recent presentation at a retail conference showed that web site owners need to address navigation in multiple ways in order to ensure greater connection with customers.

You’ll notice on my site some changes to navigation already; some visual links for those who prefer pictures, detailed links for the deeper thinkers and the standard links for those who prefer familiar methods of working. Other changes are in the pipeline – but perhaps it’s time that you too considered your site’s navigation to ensure it works with the widest possible audience.

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