Web Conventions: Creating a User-Friendly Navigation

Written by  on Jan 20, 2013

For the most part, the days of single-page websites are gone. As the internet has grown, so has our knowledge of what does and does not work, and the emergence of search engines and, specifically, search engine optimization (SEO) has changed how sites are built. Content is king, meaning if you want to be easily found online, you're going to need a good amount of original, relevant copy about you and your industry. To add another twist: too much copy pertaining to too many topics on just one page can dilute your visibility for all of those topics, so the need for pages arises. As soon as you have multiple pages you need a navigation, and there are conventions about how to do it.

Conventions are the way web users expect a site to look or work, because that's what they're used to. When it comes to navigation there's freedom in some decisions, and others that are essential.

Don't Go Changin'

One of the essentials is consistency. Depending on the size of the site, you could use a header navigation, sidebar navigation, footer navigation, or a combination of the three. Users are accustomed to looking in all of these places for links (though the footer is a poor place for your main navigation) but once you've picked one, stick to it. If your site has four main sections, the links to which are featured prominently at the top of the home page, keep them there! If your main navigation moves around from page to page, it will confuse your visitors and you risk losing them, as well as a conversion. There's nothing wrong with having multiple menus, but each one should have its own consistent real estate on each page throughout your entire site, and should function the same as well.

Let It Breathe

Your navigation also needs to be well styled so that it's easily identifiable. If people can't quickly find the links to the rest of your content, they're not going to see it. Part of this is alleviated by the consistency in positioning, but an overcrowded page can prove challenging to navigate no matter how familiar the user is with it. White space is a good thing - giving the different elements of your site 'room to breathe' will make your site look better and allow visitors to more easily find things at a glance. Clearly marked tabs, text, or boxes further separate your navigation from the rest of your content, so not only can your visitors easily find it, but it can also draw their eyes to it and keep them moving through your site to more of your pages.

Where Am I?

While not necessarily a web convention, it's always a good idea to remind your users where they are. A simple graphic indicator on navigation links can differentiate the current section or page that a visitor is on, which can be helpful especially if you have multiple pages under each section. One great example of this would be on an eCommerce site where products are arranged into many categories and sub-categories. With so many links displayed, a visual cue in the current navigation tells visitors exactly where the are which can help them navigate to other pertinent pages quickly without the possibility of clicking back to the same page. It's a simple solution that saves a few seconds here or there, but even something as small as that can make a difference in usability and how people feel about your site.

Take a look at your site: how does it stack up to these conventions? Can a new user to your site easily and quickly find their way around using your navigation? Feedback can be helpful to determine what is or isn't working - maybe ask your fans and followers on social media, or even just a family member who might not be so familiar with site.

If you think your site may need some help, contact us today to set up a free needs analysis meeting!

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