The idea for this article came from a recent experience working with a potential client. I was reviewing his current business website that he was interested in redoing. In these situations, I try to be diplomatic but honest in my reviews. No one wants to hear that their website is terrible, so I try to point out where I believe improvement is necessary without tearing apart the entire site. You never know if the client did the work themselves and happen to be very proud of what they did without having any design experience at all.
During this review, I came to realize that when it comes to certain aspects of website usability it goes beyond "keep it simple, stupid."
One of my comments about the current site was that the navigation was confusing and lacked consistency. The buttons were difficult to read and the structure didn't seem logical.
I told him that the poor navigation was making his visitors work to get through the site. In other words, he was asking them to think. At first, I was a little surprised at my own conclusion. I consider myself a person who likes to think and find myself thinking quite often. Yet when I'm visiting a website, that changes. I don't want to be forced to think, to work to figure out how the get where I want to go. It could be that it was such a simple concept, I had never really sat down and voiced it that way before.
Navigation that is well-thought out and designed doesn't make you think. And lets face it, less thinking leads to less frustration.
The way to approach this by remembering effective navigation answers fundamental questions from the user:
"Where Am I?"
Navigation is there to orient the visitor on the site. If it fails to do this, it becomes a major usability concern. A simple way to do this is by highlighting a change on the navigation, with color for example. Make it clear where the visitor even though the page may have a title, repetition works to your advantage.
After a few clicks, the next important question is:
"Where Have I Been?"
Think of it as if youre leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the visitor to follow. It can be quite frustrating to get several pages into a website and then not know where you are. This can be effectively done with a second-tier navigation.Where can I go?Make sure that a visitor can easily get back to the homepage. Or can find your contact page from where ever they may be within the site. If they cant find what they are looking for, they will not stay.
"What Will I Learn There?"
Sometimes giving the options may not be enough. Especially if you stray form the conventional "home," "about," etc. labels. Include additional information for a menu item using subtext. This will give the user extra information before they even get to the page.
One important thing to avoid is any navigation that leads a visitor to guess or have to experiment to get around the website. I understand the desire to get away from using a little house to symbolize the homepage, but try not to get overly creative. "Mystery meat" navigation only leads to frustration.
Keep in mind that a website should do all the work for the visitor and give them only what they are looking for. Navigation that is clear and self-explanatory, that gets the user from point A to point B will keep the user engaged and not make them think too much.
Insiders' Navigation Tips:
I take design very seriously, sometimes dreaming in HTML. The rest of life...not so much. See more of my design-related thoughts at http://www.lpdesignhelp.com.