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Web Navigation Design Principles: Part 2

  |  April 26, 2001   |  Comments

The second fundamental principle of Web design is to let readers know where they are, where they've been, and where they're going. Gerry tells you how to accomplish this and why it's important.

We started this series last week, noting that the best-designed sites are reader-designed, with fast download times and multiple paths. Next, we want to let readers know where they are, where they've been, and where they're going.

Let Readers Know Where They Are

Navigation should give the reader a clear and unambiguous indication of what Web site page he is on. Web navigation is somewhere between a map and a system of signposts.

Let's say that you are on vacation and are looking at a map in a town square. If the map is well designed, then one of the most prominent features will be a "You are here" sign. CNN supports the reader well in this regard. If you find yourself on CNN's entertainment page, you will see the word "entertainment" in bold capitals in the masthead.

What this means from a design point of view is that the navigation element describing the page the reader is currently on should be among the most prominent elements on the page. This will allow the reader to orient herself and say, "Ah, this is where I am."

As a rule, navigation should be text-based. Where there is a need for navigation to be in graphical form, the navigation classification representing the page the reader is on should have a different design than the other classifications.

For example, let's say you are on the home page of a particular Web site. The "Home" classification in the navigation element should have a slightly different design than the other classifications within that navigation element, thus indicating to the reader that he is on that particular page.

Let Readers Know Where They've Been

A fundamental principle of Web-navigation design is to let readers know where they've been on the Web site. This is a key reason to design navigation in hypertext rather than in graphical form.

With hypertext, when a link is clicked, it changes color. The reason it changes color is to let readers know where they have and haven't been.

On the majority of Web sites, the standard colors for hypertext are blue for unclicked text and purple for clicked text. Avoid changing these colors. Remember, navigation should always represent the familiar. Readers are used to these colors. Changing them will only serve to confuse and disorient readers.

Let Readers Know Where They Are Going

The obvious way to let readers know where they are going is to create navigation classifications that are as self-descriptive as possible. Never build a navigation based on obscure classifications that are familiar to those who work for your organization but not to the general public.

However, there will be times when navigation requires extra support in order to achieve greater clarity for the reader. There are a number of ways to to do this:

  • If the navigation element is an image, such as a company logo, and it is linked to the home page, put in ALT text that says something like "Company home page."

  • If the text link is not quite as descriptive as it should be, put in "link title" text to give the reader more background.

  • Change the color of the link when the mouse rolls over it. This is helpful when there are a lot of classification links close together. Because the link changes color, readers are more certain of what they are about to click on.

  • Have a drop-down menu showing lower levels of the classification when the mouse rolls over a particular link. This allows readers to reach deeper into the Web site if they so wish.

Next week: providing context by being consistent and familiar.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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