People should not need a GPS to navigate your website
The ability for users to find their way around a website quickly and easily is one of the most important elements of any website design. If a user cannot find what they are looking for, they leave. It is as simple as that.
So what can you do to avoid bad navigation choices?
I harken back to my days in the Boy Scouts when I heard an acronym that has served me well ever since. The acronym I am talking about is K.I.S.S. or Keep It Simple Stupid. People visiting your site should not require an advanced degree in computer science in order to figure out how to find the information they need. The easier you make it for people to find what they want, the more useful your site will become. And the easier it is to use (assuming you have what people want) the more likely you are to make the sale.
OK, then what are the keys to good website navigation?
When considering navigation for your website there are three keys that I recommend: Placement, Depth and Consistency.
Placement – Where to put the menu
The first thing to consider when designing a website is menu placement. The most common place to find primary menu navigation on a website is at the top of the page because it is the first place the majority of users will look to figure out where they want to go. The left side was the old stand by for years and with the proliferation of blogs and sites built using WordPress there are a good many out there that still use the left (and the right for that matter) but I still feel that the strongest position for primary navigation in most design structures is still the top. And while you are putting your menu there, another good practice is make the logo of your site a link back to the home page. Even if there is a Home link in the menu, 80% of people will still try clicking the logo as a means to navigate home.
Depth – How many licks it should take for people to find what they want
The biggest trick to successful navigation is to make the menuing as shallow as possible. The fewer number of clicks to get to the information people need, the better. As a rule, the more clicks it takes a person to get where they want to go, the less likely they are to arrive there on your site. Many times people just get frustrated and move on to the next site. The sweet spot is to have any available information on your site no more that two levels deep. This means no more than two clicks to find any page on your site. I can’t tell you the number of sites that I (as an experienced web developer) have gotten lost in because they were just too deep. Three levels would be a maximum but I have run into sites that can take you four, five and six levels deep all the while changing the navigation as you go so once you get where you are going, you have absolutely no idea how you got there let alone how to get back.
Some sites rely on breadcrumbs, those little tags at the top of a page that try to show you exactly where you are on the site (for example you might see something like Home > About Us > Mission to indicate you are on the mission page in the about us section), and in general these work well, but only if the primary navigation is consolidated in such a way that it is very easy to get to where you want to go without having to click the back button twenty times.
Consistency – Keeping it together
The goal with any navigational menu should be to make it as simple as possible for users to get where they want to go. A great way to do this is to consolidate your main menu and sub-menu items together so that no matter where a person is on your site, they can easily figure out where there are because when they know where they are, they are more likely to be able to figure out where they are going. Above all, once they are consolidated, leave them alone! If you change the menu items every time someone clicks, you run the risk of a bad experience that can drive users to your competitors.
The bottom line for any website is that you want your content to be read so don’t hide it.