What makes for a great web navigation experience?

6 min read David Renwick

Take a look at the navigation menu at the top of our blog. Mouse over the ‘Explore by topic’ menu and browse through the different elements.

If you’re new to the world of website architecture and UX, developing something like this may seem quite trivial – surely it’s just a matter of picking ‘popular’ areas of your website and dropping them in, right?

Not exactly.

Optimal Workshop's blog navigation dropdown
The ‘Explore by topic’ dropdown on our blog.

When it comes to website design, navigation should sit at the top of the priority list. After all, it’s what sits between your user and their goal. It’s the critical link that’s usually the deciding factor in whether or not they’ll continue to use your website.

In this article, we’re going to cover off some of the key things that make for a good website navigation experience. But first, it’s important to dispel some confusion.

According to Wikipedia, “web navigation refers to the process of navigating a network of information resources [like content]”. This is key. Website navigation isn’t the design of a website, it’s the bones of a website – the core structure that sits beneath the design. It can be helpful to think of it like a freeway system linking drivers (users) to destinations (content). Without a navigation, or, as is more often the case, with a poor navigation, the experience of using a website falls over. And in real terms, this is going to impact whatever it is that your organization does.

How navigation affects the user experience

There’s no shortage of elements that play into the user experience of a website. Everything from font, color, imagery, headlines, call to actions, page load time and form design have a bearing on the end user experience. But navigation is really the most important consideration of all. If people can’t find what they’re looking for within the structure of your website, they’ll likely leave and look for that same content elsewhere.

If you run an ecommerce website selling cosmetics, a frustrating navigation experience could mean your customers simply get fed up and try one of your competitors instead.

What makes for a great navigation experience?

When looking at what separates merely functional website navigation experiences from great ones, there are a number of key considerations:

Keep your navigation bar as simple as it needs to be

Website navigation bars have a habit of either including far too many links or not enough – it’s important to strike the right balance. You may find it helpful to consider the following 2 factors when designing your own navigation:

  • What you want your users to do on your website
  • What your users want to do on your website.

The difference in a user’s goals and your own is important. While your users may want to find information about your company history, you’ll have your own goals of getting users to product pages or perhaps signing up for accounts.

Optimal Workshop's blog navigation menu
Your navigation should serve your users’ goals.

User-friendly language

We’re not going to get into the specifics of structuring a brand tone and style here, but we’ll just note the following: Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. This is an important rule to keep in mind when designing the labels/UX copy for your navigation items. You want people to immediately understand what they’re reading or about to click on – there should never be any confusion. When your confusing labels send users on a mission to find something that should be easily discoverable, there’s a good chance they won’t return to your website.

So what does this look like? Here are a couple of examples:

  • When writing the label for a page with your company contact information, opt for ‘Contact us’ instead of ‘Leave us a message’.
  • If you need a label for a page that has information about your staff, consider something like ‘About our team’ instead of ‘Who we are’.

Stick to web conventions

  • The reason why conventions exist is because they’re based on ideas that work.
  • Design conventions work so well that you can look at a website in a completely different language and still partially navigate your way around.
  • The only time you should ever break from conventions is if you have a better way of doing something, for example, if you have a website for a specific marketing or sales campaign, it might be more appropriate to do something non-conventional with the menu.

Web conventions exist for a reason – they’re based on ideas that work and are understood by the majority of web users. In many cases, these conventions work so well that most people will be able to navigate websites in entirely different languages simply because the functions are located in places that make sense.

Don’t forget the footer

When we redeveloped the Optimal Workshop blog at the beginning of 2019, we ran a series of usability tests on our website to work out how our users navigated their way through different types of content. The results were pretty interesting. When we asked people to find a link to our blog, many didn’t go for the ‘Learn’ menu in our navigation bar but instead went straight down to the footer at the bottom of the page.

Often overlooked, the footer forms a key function in your website’s navigation experience, for a few key reasons:

  • They encourage further exploration: The end of a webpage doesn’t have to be the end of a user’s experience with your website. A footer can help to prevent users from bouncing out by encouraging further exploration and interaction.
  • They help your mobile users: Navigating the web on mobile device understandably involves more scrolling than a desktop. With this in mind, the footer becomes even more important as an anchor for mobile users: even when they get lost on a long page, they’ll know that easy navigation options await in the footer.

Tips for crafting a user-focused navigation

Building a navigation system that’s intuitive and understandable by the majority of your users isn’t easy – but it’s not impossible. The first step on the path to creating such a navigation begins with an understanding of how your users think. Or, more specifically, how your users think the information on your website should be arranged.

One of the methods that we use to figure this out is called card sorting. With card sorting, you can work out how people understand and categorize information. In a typical card sort, you task participants with sorting cards containing different items into groups. You can then use the results to figure out how to group and label the information on your website in a way that makes the most sense to the people using.

The other technique that proves invaluable during the website design process is called tree testing. It’s best-suited to help you assess the findability of topics on a website. You run a tree test on a text-based frame of your website – there are no navigation aids or design elements to give any hints. By removing everything but the labels and how they’re, you can work out how effective your navigation is at getting people to the content they’re looking for. If you find that test participants consistently struggle to locate specific items, you’ll know there are issues with your structure.

These are 2 methods that can help you with website navigation design, but they make great starting points. You can use card sorting to get an idea of how people think information should be grouped, turn this into a rough structure of your website, test it, and then iterate. If you’d like to give card sorting and tree testing a try, give our UX platform a go.