3 Simple Rules for Navigation That Will Boost Your Website's Performance

navigation-article At the outset of every new website design project, I ask clients to list a few adjectives that would describe their ideal new site. Inevitably, “easy to use” is almost always at the top of the list. Naturally, no one wants their website to be difficult to use. After all, in today’s era of unlimited choice, a great user experience is an absolute necessity. You work too hard to attract visitors and prospects to your website only to drive them away because that site’s interface presents them with frustrations and challenges. In that vein, the ease with which visitors can navigate through your website and its content will have a significant impact on the success of your site. If users can’t quickly identify how to accomplish their goals – whether it’s obtaining more information or making a purchase – they are likely to make a quick exit, taking their business with them. It’s up to your site’s navigational structure to do the heavy lifting in supporting their objectives and answering their questions, guiding them through the site to find what they need and complete the actions appropriate to those needs. This could be purchasing an item, filling out a membership or information request form, or simply finding your phone number so they can call you and open the lines of communication with your business. Regardless of your site’s “win,” an intuitive navigation structure is what will lead them there, so make sure your website follows these three Cs of good navigation in order to ensure that you make the most of every opportunity to capture and convert new customers.

1. Be concise.

In his book The Laws of Simplicity, renowned designer and current President of the Rhode Island School of Design John Maeda offers the following advice as part of his First Law of Simplicity: “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.” When weighing various options, the fewer choices that are available, the easier the decision process becomes. Give me four items to choose from, and I will be able to select one much more quickly than if you present me with eight. The same principle holds true for website navigation. Presenting your audience with fewer choices will allow them to more easily identify the one that pertains to their specific needs. Considering how impatient typical website visitors are, this can have a very positive impact on your site’s user experience. Look again at John Maeda’s quote, and you will notice that he is not an advocate for arbitrary editing but rather “thoughtful reduction.” Paring down the elements of your website’s primary navigation structure from nine or 10 choices down to four or five is great, but you need to be strategic in how you do it. Start by looking at the pages outlined in your sitemap and deciding how they can be categorized or grouped together in order to reduce the number of topline options. One of my favorite examples of this practice is the common testimonials page. Businesses love to include a testimonials page on their websites, but based on traffic numbers, these are typically among the least visited pages on any site. Traffic numbers are the ultimate arbiters of value and importance. If your visitors aren’t accessing certain content, then that content shouldn’t be given the same prominence as those pages that they actively seek out and use. In the case of testimonials, removing that link from your primary navigation and establishing it as a subpage under your “Our Company” or “About Us” section works very well. The same applies to any pages that you have that are dedicated to company history, management team profiles, staff bios, your company’s mission statement and the like. While these items are valid information for someone who’s really digging in to vet your qualifications, the majority of your visitors will never look at them, so let them take a back seat to the content that’s really going to seal the deal. Of course, this is where the “thoughtful reduction” principle comes into play. While each of the examples above could be grouped together, that doesn’t mean it is the right choice for your site. The goal is to examine your sitemap with a critical eye and decide which elements are truly important to your audience, which ones are secondary, and how you can treat them accordingly to provide as few choices as possible within your site’s primary navigation.

2. Be clear.

Everyone wants their website to be unique. Sometimes, this leads to the temptation to try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the organization and presentation of its navigational structure, whether that’s by replacing links with icons or coming up with clever names for major content areas. While this may sound like a great idea that will help set your site apart from your competitors’, it can easily backfire. Visitors want to make quick, logical choices as they navigate through your website, which means that the options presented to them need not only to be concise but also to be clear. The navigation on your website needs to conform to the expected conventions that your visitors instinctively know and recognize. This does not mean that your primary navigation should be designed to look like large, beveled buttons with faux‐3D effects. That treatment may make for an obvious “button,” but it is also not in keeping with the aesthetic of today’s Web. On the other hand, you don’t want buttons or links that are so subtle with so little contrast that they fade into the design to the point of becoming invisible. There is a happy medium to be achieved where all links can be obvious and attractive at the same time. Labels are also an important part of clear navigation. Having a navigation link labeled “About Our Company” directly conveys to users what they can expect to find on that page. Trying to be creative and instead name that link “Unlock the Magic” is anything but clear and will confuse and frustrate visitors who simply want to find more background information about your company. That’s not to say that exploring interesting and innovative avenues in the design of your website is always a bad thing. It can certainly help differentiate your site from others and make for a memorable experience. Just make sure that you are not sacrificing clarity for creativity and confusing the user experience in the process.

3. Be consistent.

The final rule of website navigation is consistency. If you’ve designed a clear, concise navigational structure that your visitors can quickly and easily understand and use, then it’s important to maintain that structure throughout the rest of your site. Your website is not a video game, where each level provides new challenges that are the purpose of the game itself. Your users do not wish to relearn how to use your site at every step along the way. They are there solely to obtain information or complete an action, and anything that gets in the way of their mission is reason enough for them to abandon your site. Consistency is about more than just your primary navigation, however. The way that submenus are presented on the interior pages of your site should remain the same from section to section as well, and the same holds true for treatment of text links or buttons. If you use a certain color for text links, consider using that same color for buttons. Users will quickly learn which color – red, for instance – denotes a clickable area, which will help them to continue moving through your site quickly and intuitively rather than being bogged down by simply trying to locate the pathways to their desired destination.

How does your site measure up?

While there are many factors that ultimately contribute to your website’s performance, a well‐designed navigational structure goes a long way toward ushering your visitors from point A (your home page) to point B (the point of conversion, whether that’s placing an order, sending you an email or picking up the phone to initiate conversation). Look at your site and evaluate its navigation based on the principles covered in this article.
  1. Is there anything you can do to make your navigational structure more concise through thoughtful reduction?
  2. Are there any changes you can make to make your navigation clearer to your audience?
  3. Are you consistent throughout your entire site with the way navigation is designed and presented?
Even if you are not ready to undertake a major site overhaul, you can still refine and tweak your existing site to improve its navigation and realize the rewards of presenting a better user experience to visitors that have found your website and are looking to do business with you.