Written by Brian Cray on June 7th, 2009
The first thing a user does when they come to your site is read the "clear read," the headline that stands out the most and marks/positions the page. And this is the way it should be. Content comes first, not navigation. You want the user to read and convert. It's not just want you want, it's what the user wants too. The user doesn't want to navigate right away. They expect they've landed on the page that will answer their needs.
Thus, content takes primary attention, while navigation accepts secondary attention. Once the user has decided to move on (within your site), they will actively search for your navigation. Obviously your navigation should be easy to find, and it should likely be at the top of the page according to cognitive models the user has acquired from previous websites.
But how should you design your navigation?
Rethinking navigation design
Navigation design is sort of a grey area in web design. Do you think? I think.
I think that you should follow standards because it allows the user to use pre-existing models of how a website works. This is always a good thing. But there is a standard to simply provide a list of pages in a tabbed bar. Is this best practice? I think not.
The navigation is absolutely the best place to influence the user's cognitive model for the website's content. If your navigation is a simple tabbed list of pages, then the user will think of your site as a unrelated collection of topics. But this isn't what you want. You want your site to make a statement as one united piece.
I propose that you stop and take a step back when you design your next website's navigation. I propose that you truly think about your website's content strategy and that you communicate your content strategy with navigation.
Here's a few tips that I use when I consider navigation design:
- The user has a choice not to navigate and it's more likely that they won't
- Navigation doesn't have to be a list of links/pages
- Navigation should explain items the user won't inherently understand
- Navigation should be instantly recognized as navigation
- Navigation shouldn't be overwhelming (contain too many top-level links)
- Navigation should be thought of in terms of what the user wants to accomplish
- Navigation should invite the user to navigate
- Navigation should be designed so that the user best understands what's on the other side