Designing The Right Website Navigation

7 minute read

People typically go to a website in search of something. If it’s an e-commerce store, they are looking to buy something; if it’s a blog, they are looking for useful information on a certain topic.
The primary goal of any website should be to help visitors find what they’re looking for. The selling part — that is, the call to action — and its placement, colors, etc., come later. That’s where web navigation becomes so important.

What Is Website Navigation?

It’s the path users take to get to the content they want. The goal of any navigation should be to make that path as simple and straightforward as possible. Navigation isn’t the design of your website; it’s how your content is structured, on top of which sits the design and the aesthetics.

What Does It Take To Get Website Navigation Right?

The key to designing great website navigation is understanding your target users. What do they want to do on your website? How are they expecting the information to be arranged?

Let’s take a simple example of an online travel portal that caters to solo travelers and helps them find unique experiences. Common business sense dictates that the homepage should have a prominent booking tool. However, it’s entirely possible that visitors are more interested in researching destinations and experiences before they loosen their purse strings. In such a case, a content-focused homepage might be a better bet.

And how do you find out whether your website navigation is meeting users’ expectations? You could use A/B testing and average time on site as indicators. For instance, if users are leaving your website too quickly, it’s possible that they didn’t find what they’re looking for. There could be other factors, such as your offers aren’t lucrative or your website load speed is slow.

You could also set up two drastically different website navigations and then use A/B testing to see which version gets a better response. However, you’ll need a big sample size to reach any sort of reliable conclusion with A/B testing.

A better way to get your website navigation right is through a technique called card sorting.

How To Use Card Sorting To Design Better Web Navigation

Card sorting is a research technique that’s useful for understanding how users categorize information. You print cards and then ask participants (ideally members of your target audience) to sort the cards into different groups according to how they see fit. You can use the results to group content on your website in the most expected way for your users.

You can do card sorting online as well as offline, and there are several online tools available. For the most reliable results, carry out card sorting both in person as well as online.

While card sorting is useful for understanding how information should be grouped on your website, tree testing, another research technique, is useful for finding out how efficient your information architecture is. In other words, with the help of tree testing, you can find out how easy (or difficult) it is to find content on your website.

What Is Tree Testing?

With tree testing, you strip down all the visual aids of your website, except labels for all the information. You then ask some members of your audience to find information in this bare-bones structure and record the results. It can provide interesting data that is useful for refining the navigation of your website.

For instance, if most participants take too long to locate the cancellation policy in your information tree, you know you need to restructure that part to improve the navigation of your website.

Helpful Tips For Designing Better Web Navigation

Even if you don’t have the resources to invest in research exercises, there are some important ground rules you can follow for better website navigation.

• Stick to conventional labels. You don’t need to call your “Contact Us” page something else. Similarly, the labels shouldn’t be ambiguous. They should clearly convey what’s stored under them. For instance, “Our Team” is a better label than “Who We Are.”

• Make use of the footer. While they’re often overlooked, footers can be a great place to share easy links to crucial information without compromising on the aesthetics of a website. For example, when you can’t have too many links in your primary navigation bar, you can use the footer for links to important pages such as your blog and your “About Us” page and even to information like cancellation policies.

• Keep the navigation bar simple. The navigation bar is often the focal point of how users engage with your website. Keep the navigation bar as simple as possible. If you have a lot of content, rely on subgroups instead of giving everything its own group.

When deciding between horizontal or vertical navigation bars, consider the amount of content you have. For populous websites, such as e-commerce stores, horizontal navigation is often a better bet. Vertical navigation can become overwhelming if there are too many links.

• Make the search field prominent. If you have a website with a lot of content, such as a blog or an e-commerce store, a prominent search field at the top can solve the problem of too many links in the navigation bar. Similarly, for mobile websites, a hamburger menu can address navigational issues on a small screen.

 Take different user levels into account. The decision to have the same or different navigation for separate user levels is largely governed by your business model. For a “freemium” model, it makes sense to have (largely) the same navigation across user levels, since you’re counting on people moving to the paid tier after a while. Keeping the navigation consistent across user levels makes for a good user experience. For businesses that don’t have a free tier, consider treating navigation for non-users as a landing page, with a focus on the benefits and the pricing.

At the end of the day, good website navigation is all about finding that middle ground between what users expect from a website and the goals of a business. And very often, finding that middle ground is about sticking to conventions and getting inputs from real-world users.

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