Navigating a Web Site

One of the most difficult problems in web site design is navigation. When you say “web site design,” a lot of people immediately think of graphics, of visual design. The core design challenges for a web site revolve around information, not visuals.

The purpose of navigation is to:

  1. Present readers with the most user-friendly path through the classification so that they can find the content they want quickly.

  2. Ensure readers always know where they are on the site.
  3. Allow readers to move quickly and logically through the web site.
  4. Give readers the proper context of the document they are reading.
  5. Highlight for the reader parts of the classification that the organization wants to promote.

There are a variety of navigation approaches that can be taken to make a web site as easy to navigate as possible. They include the following:

  • Central navigation: This is where the main body of the information is represented. An example of central navigation is found at Yahoo: “Arts and Culture, Business,” etc.

  • Global navigation: Global navigation contains links to pages that must be accessible from every page on the site (Home, Contact Us, etc.). Global navigation should also be placed at the top and bottom of every page.

  • Feature navigation: Use this sort of navigation to feature some attractive content on the web site. For example, you might want to feature a “story of the day,” a new product that has been released, etc.

  • Related navigation: This is navigation that occurs at the end of a document. It gives a selection of documents that have been classified under the same classification as that document, and/or related web sites.

  • Content navigation: This is navigation that occurs within a particular document. If the document mentions another document or classification, for example, then a link can be made.

  • History trail navigation: This navigation tells you exactly what part of the classification you are in and how that relates to the overall classification system. It should always begin with a Home link and end with the section you are in. (For example, Home/Products/Product XY)

  • Drop-down navigation: This is navigation delivered by a drop-down menu. It tends to be used as a space saver, and in cases when you want to present a section of the navigation that would be too long to present as hypertext on the page.

  • Language navigation: If a web site is in a number of languages, this navigation allows the reader to choose a specific language.

  • Geographic navigation: Where a web site is broken down by country or region, this navigation allows you to choose between them.

  • Uniform resource locator (URL) navigation: URL is the address of a document on the Internet that consists of a communications protocol followed by a colon and two slashes (for example, http://). This navigation tells you where you are in the URL structure.

Navigation is a difficult problem. It’s easy to navigate a web site of 20 pages, no matter how disorganized those pages are. But navigating a poorly organized 200-page, 2,000-page, or 200,000-page web site is a different story. Unfortunately, the Internet is full of web sites with poor navigation.

Here’s a golden rule of navigation design: Start your design from the reader’s point of view. Get the people who will actually use the web site involved in the design from the earliest point possible.

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