Web Navigation Design Principles: Part 1

The fundamental principle of navigation design is that you should design for the reader — the person who uses the Web site. The best-designed sites are reader-designed, with fast download times and multiple paths.

Remember, navigation is an aid for the reader, so unless you’ve communicated with him to find out how he would like to navigate, you cannot hope to design a navigation system that will meet his needs.

If a Web site is a publication, then its navigation is its table of contents. In a traditional publication, you have page numbering to help you navigate. You can hold the publication in your hands and flip through its pages. If it’s a large publication, there is usually an index at the back that can also be used.

You can’t hold a Web site in your hands. You can’t get an immediate sense of its size or complexity. You navigate through a Web site one screen at a time, which can prove to be very disorienting. It’s easy to get confused, to get lost. Creating a navigation system that makes the reader feel comfortable and allows her to find the content she wants quickly is no easy task.

Navigation design should seek to:

  • Help readers quickly find the desired content
  • Provide multiple navigation paths for different readers
  • Let readers know where they are at all times
  • Provide context
  • Be consistent
  • Provide feedback and support
  • Not surprise or mislead the reader

People talk about sticky Web sites that keep readers on the site for as long as possible. “Sticky” sounds yucky, uncomfortable; nobody likes getting stuck. Think of how you use a telephone directory. You want to get a number as quickly as you can. Many of the most popular Web sites (e.g., Yahoo, Amazon, and eBay) are like directories. The strength of each lies in how quickly readers can find what they are looking for.

Designing navigation is like designing highway signs. The overriding design principle is functionality, not style. A reader on the Web, like a driver in a car, moves quickly. (Numerous studies have shown that people scan text on the Web.)

Thus, it’s important to understand that navigation is not an end but a means. It is there to help the reader get somewhere. Navigation works best when the reader hardly knows that it’s there.

If everyone navigated through content in the same way, then the navigation designer’s job would be a lot easier. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Studies have shown that readers navigate through Web sites based on their own individual preferences. Thus, to accommodate a variety of readers’ navigation preferences, a range of navigation types should be offered.

Some readers may want to navigate geographically. Some may want to navigate by subject matter. Some may have found themselves on a particular page as a result of a search they did and may want to get back to the home page. Some may want to read the most recent material on a specific topic. Catering to one navigation type will not accommodate most readers’ preferences. Thus good navigation design includes a variety of navigation options wherever a reader is on the Web site.

Next week: letting readers know where they are at all times by providing context.

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