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In many ways, good web design is good navigation. When we say that a site is well-designed, or that it works well, what we usually mean is that it has excellent, intuitive navigation.

Navigation is the visual expression of a site's structure, and it's the basic problem that must be solved, in the course of designing a site. It's no small problem. Unlike magazines, or stores, or products in the physical world, websites are abstract: The user has no way of intuitively sensing the scope of your site or where they are within it.

Your navigation must provide all these clues. It has to tell users what you offer, orient them to where they are, and point them toward their next destination—all simultaneously.

  • What users learn from your navigation:
  • What your site offers. By scanning your navigation bar (or whatever system you use), visitors get a sense for what your site contains.
  • How your site is organized. Many users look to navigation to get a handle on how the site is structured. This way, they can create a context for where they are on your site, and navigate more confidently.
  • Where they are within your site. On the web—as in the physical world—a good navigation system will always point out where the user is. (Think of a map with a big red X saying "You are here.")
  • How to find what they're looking for. This is the essential task of site navigation: To get users where they're trying to go—as quickly and efficiently as possible.

When designing navigation, it's tempting to assume you have a loyal audience who'll learn about your site over time. But an honest look at your log files will likely show otherwise. "You should design your interface for the first time someone uses it," says Cate Corcoran, former Director of Online Communications for PeoplePC. "Also, design all of the pages so they can be useful standing alone. Not everyone will come in through the front door of your site."

8 bad ideas for site navigation

There are a lot of different ways to let users navigate your site. Some are better than others, but none are worse than these. I know, because I've tried them. All of them. Even the flying, floating things.

  • Pull-down menus, which conceal your site's sections instead of revealing them.
  • Home-made icons, which users will not come to recognize, no matter how hard you try to make them.
  • Color coding, which no one will even notice, much less attach meaning to.
  • Visual metaphors like a picture of an office or sales desk that users can click around. They'll find it quaint, at best.
  • Cute, clever names for sections that your users won't visit (because they don't understand them).
  • Navigation elements that move around and appear in different places on different pages. Repeat after me: "I will not disorient my user. I will not disorient my user."
  • Navigation elements in unexpected places. Surprises have a time and place. Your site's navigation is not it.
  • Flying, floating things that the user has to grab as they zoom around the screen. Your navigation should not be a game, unless your entire site is a game. And even then, your navigation should not be a game.
  • A little theory for you: How people navigate the web

In order to design effectively for the web, you have to first understand how people behave when they're online. For the web is fundamentally different from print, TV, or other media to which it's often compared.

  • People use different media differently:
  • People read magazines.
  • People watch television.
  • But people navigate the web as if it were a physical space.

Although the computer screen is physically flat—more one-dimensional than a book, even—people move through the web as if it were a physical space. They scan each page for navigational cues, then move forward mentally, closing in on their destination. "Where should I go?" they think, instead of "What should I read?"

This is no small difference. The transition from reading a magazine, for example, to using the web requires a cognitive shift: When a person stares into a monitor, the cursor on the screen (controlled by the mouse in her hand) becomes an extension of her physical body. So the task of navigating the web feels very much the same, mentally, as navigating a physical space.

This is exactly what Marshall McLuhan might have predicted. In the early years of television, McLuhan published influential theories on how people interact with—and are shaped by—media. "All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical," he wrote in The Medium is the Message. "The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the an extension of the skin...electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system."

If users do project themselves into the screen (the cursor becoming an abstract representation of the body), this goes a long way toward explaining not only how people feel online, but also how they act. Most people navigate websites as if they were running through an airport, looking for their gate: Quickly, purposefully, and sometimes desperately.

Theory aside, the spatial nature of the web is what makes navigation so important. In many ways, designing a website is more like designing a public space than a printed page.

Users arrive at your site with a purpose in mind, and your goal in designing the site is to get them to their destination as quickly as possible, providing the most direct pathways marked by the most universally recognized symbols.

Most people navigate websites as if they were running through an airport, looking for their gate.

So web design is an architectural problem, as much as a visual one. And as architectural problems go, it's a challenging one, because people can't rely on any of the visual clues—or other senses—they use to navigate real-world spaces.

In the real world, people can size things up more easily: They can see how big a building is, and they can see who else is there. They can tell how noisy it is, and what it smells like. They can see where the doors are. And if they get lost, they can always retrace their steps or ask someone for help.

But the web is abstract, and it offers no such clues. Your senses are limited to what you can see in the browser. And there's no one around to help you if you get lost. So it falls to the site's design—and particularly the navigation—to fill all these roles. It must communicate what kind of site it is, tell users what's there, orient them to where they are, point them to where they're going, and show them how to get back.

No one said it was going to be easy.

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