The key to successful website navigation 

As the proverb goes, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. But when it comes to website navigation, it’s got to be about both.

29 Oct 2019
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Amy Willoughby - Senior Designer

Designing a great navigation system for a website means thinking about a lot more than just the main menu. Enabling people to discover and achieve what they want to do efficiently is the foundation of navigation planning. But not everyone starts at the homepage, and not everyone is there to do the same thing. So how can you make sure every visitor find what they’re looking for and has a pleasant journey through your site? There are a couple of absolutely key considerations: clear language and strategic signposting.

First you need to get content organisation in order. A sitemap lays out the relationships between pieces of content behind the scenes. How this looks depends mostly on your business priorities. Navigation is not, after all, entirely driven by website user needs, but also by business goals. What do you hope people will see on your site? What would you like them to do while there? These ideas go hand-in-hand with what customers want. How this manifests in visible navigation is through strategically revealing these content relationships as website users show an interest in them. Oh, you’re reading about X? Then you might be trying to get to Y.

The web abounds with useful tips around menus and buttons and sidebars and things that help with navigation’s practical design, but while those are best practices and broad stroke ideas, navigation is personal to your demographic. It should be entirely people-focused. What works for one organisation won’t work for another because users will prioritise experiences differently.

thumbnail-(5).jpgWhat we’re really talking about is coming up with an underlying logic to the decisions behind your site’s navigation. Why are people here and what do they really want? By mapping out these processes online and offline, designers can see where important touch-points start to take place. But that’s just the beginning—a hypothesis about how people access the content, which gets tested further to understand real behaviour. Creating a robust enough logic to inform the depth of information architecture does require commitment to market research. Navigation can’t rely entirely on assumptions about human behaviour. It has to be put into practice. After all, everyone knows that logic and human behaviour don’t always mix perfectly!

How this logic system then translates into successful navigation is through anticipating user expectations and then exceeding them. Reducing user journeys to two or three clicks to their destination is often important. Creating a better mobile experience through tap areas and other clever design is increasingly critical. Grouping users by their needs—triaging—early in their journey so they land in the correct area can be vital to achieving both of those goals.

For example, consider a website that sells construction materials to trade clients as well as to individuals. Both types of user might be interested in the same product—flooring, for instance. But they are subject to different purchasing mindsets, product availability, pricing structure, delivery options, and account memberships. They don’t want to have to wade through each other’s territory to get to their destination. Navigation for a site like this might allow users to self-identify as trade or non-trade from any landing page, which would immediately funnel each of them into the correct options. 

thumbnail-(6).jpgAnother site might be an information repository, such as an academic journal archive. It may service several journals going back decades. Users need to be able to access articles by subject. So the navigation will necessarily rely on a system that directs users to the correct journal by title and or research area. This navigation doesn’t necessarily require users to identify themselves; they’re all researchers. Instead it categorises the journals (Engineering, Archaeology and Biology, perhaps). Within each category, there is greater detail on the journals and articles available. Some articles might be found under more than one category and can be navigated to through both categories.

thumbnail-(7).jpg In all cases, the secret to successful navigation isn’t really that you’ve crafted the perfect sidebar or managed to make your footer the right size, though design elements are important. It’s that you’ve created a system of logic and kept it consistent throughout the site. This logic, this ethos governs every single user journey so that not only does everyone end up at their destination, but just as critically, they don’t end up somewhere they don’t want to go. No one wants to waste time chasing a piece of information on a website that ought to be easily found in a few clicks, but we’ve all done it! 

Want to talk more about improving your site’s navigation? Speak to Amy on 0114 2797779.  

Amy Willoughby

Senior Designer