How Will They Buy It if They Can't Find It?

  |  November 12, 2001   |  Comments

Snazzy unique navigation may wow your site visitors, but if it hinders them from finding what they need, they won't be hanging around very long.

"Most sites have miserable information architectures that mirror the way the company internally thinks about the content and not the way users think about the content. Predictably, users ignore such unhelpful structure." It's been several years since design guru Jakob Nielsen wrote that assessment, and not much has changed since.

Typically, people "ignore such unhelpful structure" by leaving your site without having reached their goals, and they never come back. Want to help your customers shop and move them ever closer to converting into buyers? Then design your navigation to support the way your customers think, so your site anticipates the way your customers want to interact with it. Remember these three cardinal rules of navigation design: Keep it simple, make it intuitive, and be consistent.

Studies demonstrate that people search for and gather information in fairly predictable ways. Navigation has two basic roles to play. It orients the customer by letting him know where he is; and it directs, showing him where he can go and how he can get back to where he was before.

Let me summarize some basic truths about navigation:

  • If your visitors can't find what they want quickly and easily, they will leave.

  • Web site visitors are task-oriented, or goal-driven. The vast majority of the time, they pursue what they are looking for single-mindedly, and even when they are browsing they browse within a narrow field.

  • Visitors rarely look at logos, mission statements, slogans, or any other elements that they consider fluff.

  • If a page does not appear relevant to the visitor's current goal after just two or three seconds, she will click the "Back" button.

  • If visitors don't understand a certain design element, they won't spend time learning or thinking about it.

  • Most visitors hate distractions, such as flashing GIFs, and intrusions, such as pop-ups and pop-unders.

Many different types of navigation schemes exist out there. Ideally, you should combine elements to create a scheme that works best for your business and your customers. The goal, obviously, is to orient and direct your customers to and through the conversion step of your persuasion process, whether that conversion is a purchase, subscription, phone call, or whatever other action you want your visitors to take. Let's talk about some of these schemes:

  • Hierarchical. It's that sideways, tree-like line of text and arrows that indicates where the user is and where he has been. It reminds me of those little kids in the fairy tale who drop breadcrumbs so they would know how to get home. It often looks like this: Home Page > Automobiles > Classics > Convertibles.

  • Global. This scheme offers access to all areas of your site using tabs or a running list. Take a look at our own site, Future Now. The tabs across the top are simple to use, plus they are consistent throughout the site.

  • Local. This scheme allows users to get to related information within a category but not between categories. This is most helpful when your visitor has landed on your site via a search engine but hasn't landed on quite the right page. We use that on our site as well.

  • Embedded links. This scheme is simple but very powerful. Simply place a relevant hyperlink within the body of some text. The most effective way to use this technique is to combine an imperative verb with a benefit: New Superstuff will remove your toughest stains, fast. Register here for a free sample.

  • Site maps. Many sites persist in using these, but this is the least effective form of navigation, and, in fact, most folks skip them completely. They do have some value, particularly for search engines, but don't put too much emphasis on them.

  • Site search engines. A lot of sites like to give in-site search engines a lot of importance. According to the latest research, the best sites actually worked hard to prevent people from having to use the search engines. When users' clickstreams were examined, researchers discovered that site visitors were far more successful finding content when they navigated by using categories than when using a search engine. In fact, users were far more likely to find their target content when they didn't use the site's search facilities than when they did.

The right blend of schemes depends on the type of product or service you are offering and, in turn, the nature of your visitor. Keep these pointers in mind as you create the structure for successful and painless movement throughout your Web site, and you'll be on the right track:

  • Use standard icons and conventions whenever possible. For example, people understand the purpose of a shopping cart, and they know that blue underlined text means a hyperlink. Leverage what they already know. Contradict it just to be "original," and you will lose opportunities to convert.

  • Keep it simple and make it intuitive. Ease of use makes for happy customers.

  • Keep your scheme consistent from page to page. Your customers should only have to figure it out once, if they have to figure it out at all. Frustrate them and they're gone.

  • Always illustrate the basic structure of the navigation system. It helps your visitors feel more confident, and more confidence leads to more sales.

  • Stick to clear, concise labels for your navigation elements. This is not the place to get creative or coy. Confuse them and you lose them. Check your logs for the terms your visitors are using to search your site.

  • Use text for navigation elements; avoid graphics. Graphics take time to load and don't always load properly. Some of your prospects even go so far as to have images turned off in their browsers, in which case all those pictures you created to direct your traffic were a waste of time and money. If you feel you must use pictures, always include accompanying text.

  • Don't link everything to everything. Less is more.

  • Anticipate where your customer is likely to go, and build that into your scheme.

  • Don't overuse embedded links, and make sure it's clear where people are going when they click on the link.

  • Test! Test! Test! Use lots of different users, different browsers, and different viewing options. Try the Mom Test.

  • Provide help, online and offline.

  • Above all, keep your links within your page. Don't require your customer to use her browser's "Back" button. If you do, you hand her a chance to leave your site completely. (On the other hand, never disable her browser's "Back" button. Hijacking someone's computer is a great way to lose that customer forever.)

Again, it's all about designing your information architecture around the searching patterns and psychology of your visitors -- not coming up with something that looks cool but sends your visitors clicking for the hills. When you make it easy for your visitors to find what they want to buy quickly and intuitively, more of them will convert. And that's the point, isn't it?


Bryan Eisenberg

Bryan Eisenberg is co-founder and chief marketing officer (CMO) of IdealSpot. He is co-author of the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, BusinessWeek, and New York Times best-selling books Call to Action, Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?, and Always Be Testing, and Buyer Legends. Bryan is a keynote speaker and has keynoted conferences globally such as Gultaggen,, Direct Marketing Association, MarketingSherpa, Econsultancy, Webcom, the Canadian Marketing Association, and others for the past 10 years. Bryan was named a winner of the Marketing Edge's Rising Stars Awards, recognized by eConsultancy members as one of the top 10 User Experience Gurus, selected as one of the inaugural iMedia Top 25 Marketers, and has been recognized as most influential in PPC, Social Selling, OmniChannel Retail. Bryan serves as an advisory board member of several venture capital backed companies such as Sightly, UserTesting, Monetate, ChatID, Nomi, and BazaarVoice. He works with his co-author and brother Jeffrey Eisenberg. You can find them at

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