Good website navigation blends into a design so easily that people rarely think much about it. In fact, it wasn’t until the advent of mobile technology that marketers started taking a new look at it.
Those who have been on the Web since the 1990s and early 2000s probably remember the days when ugly, disjointed “frames” were the #1 way of making a complex site more navigable.
Of course, implemented incorrectly, they could also turn the content and UI into a mess!
Luckily, nothing we work with today is nearly as troublesome as old-fashioned frames. Still, you can turn a site into a headache-inducing chore if you don’t give navigation enough attention.
Let’s look at some website navigation techniques that can help:
1. Avoid Generic and Format-Based Navigation Labels
Generic content labels make it hard for users to understand the content of each page at a glance. Almost as importantly, it confounds search engines and undermines SEO strategy when you use labels like “Solutions.” Always balance the need to be both descriptive and concise.
2. Use Breadcrumbs
Breadcrumbs are the navigational “tags” that show you the hierarchy of pages you’ve explored so far. When breadcrumbs are placed at the top and bottom of a page, the user is able to easily go back up to any previous level of the content hierarchy without fiddling with the “back” button.
Naturally, there are situations where breadcrumbs are less appropriate – you wouldn’t want them on your landing pages, for example. Implementing them consistently throughout main content pages is a good move – and will remind you not to create silos more than three layers deep.
3. Limit the Number of Menu Items and Order Them by Relevance
Ideally, your average user should experience your main navigation menu as a single, slender list. If you’re concerned there are too many list items, check your design across multiple browsers and displays to find out what display size causes your menu to spill over.
Eight menu items is usually a good rule of thumb, particularly if the labels are single words. Be sure that your most valuable content is first on your list: On the far left for sites with navigation bars over the top, at the top for those with navigation on the side.
“Contact” is always a good choice to be the last item on your navigation list.
5. Use Sticky Navigation for Long- and Infinite-Scrolling Sites
Sticky navigation allows your main navigation bar to follow the user down the page as they scroll. This means there’s a quick way for them to get back to the top or move on to another subject when it suits them. However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this.
Be cautious of how wide your sticky navigation is, particularly on mobile devices. Remember that sticky navigation is less intrusive at the top of the screen: Positioning it at the bottom of the screen is more annoying and looks gimmicky in a “click here!” kind of way.
Many times, the best way to implement sticky navigation is by having your logo follow the user in the form of a pop-out menu. Still, they have to understand it’s a menu in order for it be helpful.
Which brings us to ...
6. Emphasize Pop-Out Menus Using Shadow, Contrast, or Fade
Flat design burst on the scene along with mobile technology and it shows no sign of going away soon. To avoid giving Web content a disjointed appearance, emphasis in flat designs needs to be subtle: In most cases, an understated shadow can clue the user in about a pop-out window. Color contrasts also work well in minimalist designs, but can be jarring if overused.
7. Recommend Next Steps at the End of Every Process
As marketers, we all know that users tend not to take “the next step,” even if they know what it is, unless it is explicitly suggested to them. This same principle can apply in website navigation, too – and understanding that may make your site easier for users to enjoy.
For example, if a user has just signed up to your site, be sure they’re presented with options on how to access popular content, answer common questions, or solve common problems. If they’ve just made a buy, they should be encouraged to share or instructed on how to claim their discount.
Thinking in terms of “next steps” will help you anticipate user needs and, ultimately, segment your customer groups more effectively. This can also be combined with machine learning and other tools to deliver customized content right when someone needs it.
8. Highlight Recent History for E-Commerce and Membership Sites
Amazon demonstrates absolute mastery here: It never lets you forget what you’ve done on the site recently. Providing recent history means that half-formed plans and ideas your users might have had don’t slip down the memory hole and get lost for good.
Recent history combines well with recommendations, of course. There are many interesting ways for these concepts to work together, no matter if you offer physical or digital items. A centralized “member hub” for each user will also give them a place to start each journey.
Website navigation doesn’t have to be complicated – for you or your users.
Good website navigation comes from a deep understanding of not only the most important part of your own message, but how users interact with your site. The strongest foundation for your site’s navigation is the simplest: It’ll be easier to browse and easier for you to maintain.