Website navigation can make or break your site. It’s one of the key factors determining your site’s usability. Get it right, and visitors will be able to explore and interact with your site intuitively, and find what they’re looking for easily.
But, regardless of how creative your website header design is, if your navigation is an afterthought, people could become lost, bored, or confused on your site. Once that happens, they’ll quickly scoot off to explore elsewhere, which generally means you’ll be driving them into the hands of your main competitors.
But that’s not all. In addition to determining how easy and fun your site is to use, your navigation affects a host of other things too, from increasing pageviews and boosting SEO to determining how long people spend on site and how likely they are to turn into customers.
To help you get it right, here are seven tips to design the perfect website navigation.
1. Think structure first
“The primary aim of navigation is for people to be able to find the information they need quickly and easily. ” Like many things, start with the basics.
Plot out a sitemap containing all the information that needs to be on the site, and think about its order of importance. Consider your target audience. Think about what they’re looking for when they visit your site and their logical flow through it.
Now pop your brainstorming hat on and work out the hierarchy of the information – a card-sorting session is a great way to figure out the best possible way to structure your site content.
Bear in mind that our brains tend to focus more on the items at the top or bottom of a list, so always place the most important and helpful information first or last.
2. Keep it simple
OK, who doesn’t love playing with innovative new design trends? “As designers, we all know the temptation of trying out something new and exciting. But when it comes to web navigation, you’re best to focus on the tried and tested. ”
Don’t overcomplicate your website by placing your menu bar in a random location. Stick to a traditional horizontal navigation bar across the top or a simple vertical down one side, and make it consistent throughout the site. Navigation isn’t the place for surprises; it should present a clear, succinct roadmap of everything on the site, so your visitors know exactly where to go to achieve their task or find the solution to their problem.
However, your navigation does need to be visually distinct from the rest of the site’s content, so it’s easy to locate. Ideally, use a different color, font, and size from the main content to ensure it stands apart.
3. Less is more
“We’ve all heard the old adage “less is more.” This is certainly true when it comes to your website menu. ” If your navigation bar is bursting with options, you risk causing decision paralysis, which ultimately leads to your potential customers being unable to find the information they’re seeking quickly.
Seven is often mooted as a good number, give or take a couple, because that’s believed to be the limit of our short-term memories. Any more than that and we’re likely to skim over them and miss something important. Conversely, when you start removing options from your navigation bar, you make the remaining items more prominent.
Being concise also helps to boost your SEO. If you have a ton of links leading off your homepage, you’ll dilute your link juice, lessening the authority and trust that passes on to your interior pages. The more concise your navigation, the more likely your pages are to rank.
4. Be descriptive
“Many websites fall into the trap of using generic labels for their navigation, but they’re missing a trick. ” Simply using “products” or “services” doesn’t tell people what products or services you offer. And “what we do” certainly doesn’t tell people what you do.
However, using descriptive, keyword-rich labels in your navigation is a double bonus. First, it communicates to your potential customers who you are and what you offer, as soon as they land on your site. Second, it tells Google that you’re focused on that particular industry, which gives your rankings a nice boost, too.
Another no-no is format-based names. Labeling your menu with “photos,” “videos,” or “white papers” is equally unhelpful. People are looking for a specific subject matter, not a white paper, so make it easy for them to find.
5. Use responsive navigation menus
“In our mobile world, it goes without saying that navigation should be responsive. ” The average navigation bar is too wide to fit across a mobile screen. And with screen space at a premium, you don’t want to waste too much on listing your menu options.
One solution for mobile sites is to use a hamburger bar – three short, stacked lines – that opens to a full menu when clicked on or hovered over. This widely accepted convention has become so popular that it’s now used on certain desktop sites. A word of warning though – while this can look impressive on a minimalistic site, if you have a lot of options, you could make the browsing experience too complex.
When designing your mobile menus, bear in mind that mobile users may have different needs to desktop users, and that their attention span is probably somewhat shorter. So make your menus even more concise, simple, and easy to use. And please, ensure that the “tap targets” are big enough for larger fingers to use!
6. Include a search function
“Search is a hugely valuable feature for web users, as it gives them a quick, direct route to the information they require. ” Ideally, you should place your search box in the header or the top of your sidebar, so it’s easy to find. Most importantly, you should ensure that it functions correctly – you want your search box to produce results, allow for misspellings, and offer related products or services.
However, your search bar isn’t only useful for your visitors; it can be a great source of information for you, too. By tracing your search metrics, you can learn how to improve your navigation and tweak your naming conventions to make things easier to find from the outset.
7. Make it easy to get “home”
Finally, your visitors should be able to tell where they are on your website at all times, and be able to navigate back to their starting point. “Don’t force your visitors to continually hit the “back” button to return to your home page. ” Ensure there are links to home throughout the website.
The best way to provide this is by making your logo clickable and sitting it in your header, preferably in the top left just beneath the back button, as this is intuitively where your users will look for it.