Navigating Web Pages

Designing Navigation That Works

A logical web-page design written on a napkin
Bill Oxford / Getty Images

According to Jennifer Flemming, author of a book on Web navigation, if people can't navigate your site, they will leave it. At the Web 98 convention, I attended a seminar by Jennifer on how to design Web navigation.

According to the GVU's WWW User Survey, the most important issues facing the Internet are:

  1. Privacy (30.49%)
  2. Censorship (24.18%)
  3. Navigation (16.65%)

For privacy, you can post your privacy policy on your Web site (as TrustE recommends), but it's up to your readers to believe you.

Censorship is also something your readers must perceive is or is not happening, but navigation is primarily you, and how you design your pages.

So, as the most important aspect of the World Wide Web that you, as a Web Developer can affect, how do you know what works and what doesn't? Well, to be brutally honest, you don't. By the time you are ready to have your site go live you have looked at it and worked with it and manipulated it so that you couldn't get lost if you tried to. You are not a good judge of the navigability of your site.

Get someone else to look at it

Try to find an impartial observer who is not familiar with your site to look it over. What is easy to find? What is hard? Do the buttons work? Is the sequence logical? Ask this reviewer what s/he likes and doesn't like about your navigation so that you can see what is good and bad. And, if you can, get several people to look at it.

Remember, most people who find a Web site hard to use won't spend the time to tell you about it. They will simply leaveĀ and never come back (most likely). You want your navigation to help your users get around your site.

Navigation is for user goals

Keep in mind, that while you may be designing the site for yourself, if you want someone else to read it, you need to design the navigation with their needs in mind.

If you set up your site to align to only your goals, your customers will get frustrated and leave. Of course, if you do nothing to meet your client's goals you will be out of a job. So, how do you design navigation that will satisfy your readers and keep people at the site so your clients will be happy?

According to Jennifer, you use navigation that "works". The navigation should:

  • be easily learned so that your readers don't get lost
  • remain consistent throughout the site
  • appear in context with the entire site
  • offer alternatives so that if the navigation path the user tried isn't right, there are other choices
  • provide clear visual messages
  • be appropriate for the purpose of the site
  • support users' goals and behaviors