Website Navigation Best Practices: Navigation Design Guidelines

Poor navigation makes us think. Better navigation makes us think less. Great navigation is so obvious we don't have to think at all.

This is such an important concept that Web usability author, Steve Krug, titled his book, Don't Make Me Think. That is the bottom line answer to every question about website navigation.

Don't leave your website visitors wondering what to do next. Don't make it hard. Don't give a lot of choices.

Just how much don't we want to think?

If someone who's been living in a cave since the Web took off, gets online and figures out what a site is all about, that is just about the right amount of thinking. If Grandma, who thinks a mouse is something cats chase, can go online and figure out what a site is all about, without help, that's about right.

Those may be silly examples, but worrying about PageRank and not worrying about usability, is a waste of time, effort and finances. Yes, get visitors to the site, but don't let them sit staring at the page, trying to figure out what to do next, or where to go, or how to find what they're looking for.

If the back button to the search results is the only thing that's easy to find and use on the page, guess what. That's the button that will be used.

Today, in about ten minutes on the Web, I came across two common examples of poor navigation:

  • a link on the site of a major software company that goes like this: Main navigation link: goes to PRODUCTS -> Sub link: goes to CopyDesk -> Sub link: goes to "undefined" And what do you know, "undefined" doesn't link to anything.
  • on the site of a national printing company: three links to "business cards" in three different navigation bars all on the same page. Only after waiting for all three to load do we learn that they all go to the same place: an order form. None of the three offers more information.

The solution.

Solutions to navigation problems are not always easy. Large, complex sites may have no choice but to offer multiple navigation. Sites with lots of pages and lots of links may need addtional work to address these challenges. And then there's all the juggling to include search engine optimization. Some compromises may have to be made. Yet, keeping the user in mind, limiting and clarifying choices and eliminating confusion whenever possible, not only makes for happier site visitors, it offers the bonus of also helping search engines.

Navigation that makes us think.

  • Multiple navigation with duplicate or conflicting links.
  • Vague links or links that don't go anywhere.
  • No navigation on page, forcing use of back button to get out.
  • Not linking directly to the item named.
  • Active links to the current page.
  • Current page is not indicated.
  • Navigation that reflects the company's structure rather than division or classification meaningful to content and user goals.

Navigation that doesn't make us think.

  • All pages have at least basic site navigation.
  • The navigation indicates the current page.
  • Meaning of link text is clear and each is unique.
  • All links go somewhere specific and unique.
  • Categories related to product or service offered, not company organization.
  • Repetitive links, if absolutely necessary, are clearly indicated as repetitive.