It’s not enough for a website to simply look good. It’s not even enough to have a good product. If a user can’t find their way to that product, the best images in the world won’t help your sales.
As designers it’s our job to take stock of the behaviour of typical users and position navigational elements where users would expect to find them.
Your navigation will be based on the Information Architecture (IA) – the structure and organisation – of your site. When choosing a navigation type you should weigh up its limitations and benefits. Will it be a series of buttons? Is it Flash-based? Does it use any special features? Where is it on a page?
Navigation that works well
The navigation on this site used to be barely distinguishable from a table of random words – I even had it earmarked as one of my bad examples. It was a nested fly-out horror. After a well-needed extreme makeover, the site now has links to all the subtle sub-sub-genres of house music, accessible from every page. This encourages the visitor to browse all the departments of products available for sale and drives sales.
This is just one example of a popular trend. Evan’s top-level navigation solves the problem of single-keyword labels on navigation – using economical typography he is able to provide a description of the content within a section.
In the same vein as the above example, Smashing Magazine’s navigation buttons provide a link to the top-level article section, with smaller links to the sub-categories for quick access. This shows that good navigation doesn’t have to be complex if it is well thought out.
What doesn’t work?
The most common problems with bad navigation are:
- Inconsistency – the navigation elements look different, or are in a different place, on various pages within the same site.
- Discontinuity – when it is difficult to get from one interior page to another without returning to the home page or, worse, when it is difficult to return to the home page.
- Bad organization – a section may have six or seven levels, but it isn’t clear to the user how to get to them.