Web Site Navigation and Development

Laws of Effective Navigation

The first law of effective navigation: It' must be readily available.

Visitors should not have to hunt for your navigation or wonder where to find it. If we've done the job right, it will be right there when they are ready for it.

The struggle in creating good navigation is to figure out what type of navigation the visitor is going to need, when he is going to need it, and where the most effective placement will be.

Basically, you have to anticipate your visitors needs and have a solution ready.

Here are four key areas of effective navigation:

1. Global Navigation
Global navigation is a set of links to all the main areas of your site that is available on every page of the site in the same place. Global navigation is critical, because it gives visitors ready access to the key areas on your site.

If you don't have this type of navigation, visitors tend to get lost. They lose their ability to easily move around between the main sections.

When you use global navigation, visitors develop a sense of familiarity with your site because the site is consistent. When they need to find something, they know right where to look for it.

Global navigation is generally across the top of the page or down the left side, since these two places are where visitors will look first.

Also, it's crucial that global navigation be in the first fold of the page. This means it needs to be visible in the first window the visitor sees before they scroll down. Since these options represent the most crucial sections of your site, it's imperative that visitors see them immediately. We would never put your main navigation below the fold.

2. Spotlighted Navigation
On many sites, there are a few navigation options that get the spotlight in the center of the main page. The concept is great--hook visitors with the key areas right up front.

However, many people completely miss the boat because they focus on the wrong links. Frequently, they link to the company history or the mission statement.

You have to concentrate on what's important to your reader/potential customer and what they want to see. What are the most important places visitors are likely to go on your site? Which pages are really crucial? Put those things front and center.

As with global navigation, all spotlighted links should also be above the fold. This point might seem obvious, but I've seen quite a few sites recently that almost hide the important links. They are buried too far down in the site.

One site in particular placed the two most important links at the bottom of the page, completely out of site. Big mistake: visitors just won't see them.

Although navigation usually shouldn't be the primary focus of your page (that honor belongs to content), it should be given a prime position.

3. Contextual Navigation
Contextual navigation refers to links that give more info about something specific the visitor is trying to do.

On every page of your site, you'll have to anticipate the questions a visitor is going to have. Figure out what kind of additional information they might need. Then provide links to that information at the precise place that they will have the question.

One good rule is that any time you refer to information on another page of your site or on a third party's site, link directly to that info. Don't make them hunt and peck trying to find it for themselves. Make it readily available.

4. Bottom-of-the-Page Navigation
Whenever the visitor gets to the end of a page, they are left hanging. They have finished whatever it is they were working on, and now they need somewhere else to go.

This is a critical moment, because it is terribly easy for a visitor to leave if we don't give them somewhere to go. It is our responsibility to point them in the right direction.

We never want to leave visitors without suggestions at the bottom of a page. It is our job to guide them in the right direction.

We always make sure there is at least one link at the bottom of a page. We like to ask...

Where are your visitors going to need a link and how can we make that link really obvious to them?

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