What Makes a Good Website Navigation System?

14th June 2011

Navigation is the basis of how a user experiences and moves around your website and it seems simple enough, but what makes a good one?

I sat down to consider this and realised that the best navigation systems are those you hardly notice. They’re an effortless aspect of a website which you never really have to consider. In short, they just ‘work’.

Think like a user

Put yourself in the role of the user and really think about your interaction with a web page. Whether it’s an ecommerce site where you’re attempting to buy something, or simply for information, there will be minor differences but the basic principles remain the same. What are the challenges?

  • You may have entered via a blog post or some place other than the homepage
  • You may not be sure exactly what you’re looking for
  • You may want to be able to check out the site’s Twitter stream and other social accounts without losing the page you’re on

There are many more, but these are common ones which immediately jump out to me. Now I want you to consider some ways site owners help overcome these challenges, in relation to their navigation. What have they done to make your life easier? I was able to come up with these main points.

  • Consistency – most people are used to finding a primary navigation bar or panel in the same place on every page, with short and accurate links to your most important pages. There is nothing wrong with giving people what they expect, especially where navigation is concerned.
  • Simplicity – it’s important your primary navigation stands out but this is not the place to get over complicated and outlandish. Some people might have the graphics turned off or javascript disabled when browsing the Internet so try to stick to text, or at least provide a text alternative. You can do great things with CSS these days, so utilise it.
  • Relevance – if you need secondary menus make sure they’re relevant to the current content. Try using related pages/posts to help users pick through.

So far I’ve covered your main page and post links but a navigation system will often contain a few more elements than this.

Internal linking

You can place links to other pages in the actual body text of the page. This can help users find related information quickly. Internal linking can also help search engine spiders to find their way to every single page.

Website Search

If you’ve got a lot of content this is a great way to help users find what they want.

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are a really simple but effective way of helping users navigate back between your sub categories, especially if you have lots.

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