Not much has changed in the year since Jakob Nielson wrote, "Most sites have miserable information architectures that mirror the way the company internally thinks about the content and not the way users think about the content. Predictably, users ignore such unhelpful structure." Typically, they ignore by bailing, pronto.

Want to employ useful navigation that helps your customers shop and moves them ever closer to the close? Then design your site the way your customer thinks, so your site anticipates the way your customers want to interact with your "store." And remember the three cardinal rules: keep it simple, make it intuitive and be consistent.

Turns out, it isn't all that difficult to figure out what your customers probably want to do when they get to your site. Studies demonstrate people search for and gather information in fairly predictable ways. And navigation has a very simple role to play. It orients the customer by letting him know where he is, and it directs by letting him know where he can go as well as how to get back.


· A “user experience” consultancy reported, “39 percent of test shoppers failed in their buying attempts because sites were too difficult to navigate. The potential benefit of improving a website's usability is staggering.”

· To optimize your site, you need to recognize users are task-oriented, or "goal-driven." They pursue what they are looking for rather single-mindedly, and even when they are browsing, they browse within a narrow field.

· "Users rarely look at logos, mission statements, slogans, or any other elements they consider fluff."

· "If a page does not appear relevant to the user's current goal, then the user will ruthlessly click the Back button after two or three seconds."

· "If users don't understand a certain design element, they don't spend time learning it."

· Most users hate distractions, such as flashing gifs, and also hate un-requested intrusions, such as pop-ups.


There are many different types of navigation schemes out there. What is usually successful, though, is to combine pieces from several and come up with a scheme directed to get your customer to the “close” of your sales process, whether that “close” is a purchase, a subscription, a phone call or whatever else it is that you want your visitors to do. Let’s talk about some of these schemes:

1. Hierarchical - that sideways, tree-like line of text that indicates where the user has been. It reminds me of those little kids in the fairy tale who “left breadcrumbs” so they would know how to get home and often looks like this:

Home Page > Automobiles > Classics > Convertibles

2. Global - this scheme offers access to all areas of your site, using tabs or a running list. Take a peek at the site of my buddies, Future Now <>. See the tabs across the top? Real simple and easy to use. You can access this navigation from any page of the site, too, because Future Now makes the system consistent over every page.

3. Local - allows users to get to related information within a category, not between categories. This is most helpful when your visitor landed on your site via a search engine, but hasn’t landed on quite the right page. Take another look at Future Now <>. See the right bar of information with links? There you go; also very easy.

4. Embedded Links - This is another very easy scheme. You simply place a hyperlink within the body of some text. You just have to be careful how you phrase the link to suggest where it will take the user. (NOTE: the links in the following examples are not real.)

Less effective use of embedded links: I am writing a novel about a woman who was murdered.

Will that link to how to write a novel? Thoughts about writing a novel? The novel itself? It's not terribly clear.

More effective use of embedded links: I am writing a novel about Jack the Ripper. Want to read an excerpt?

The user can more easily assume these links will take her to a discussion of Jack the Ripper and a sample of the manuscript.

5. Site Maps - hate to tell ya, but most folks skip these completely. It’s too much information for most visitors to bother with, nor does it strike most users as being as creative as some designers would like to think. You could argue a site map does have some value as a supplemental navigation tool just in case your customers can’t find what they were looking for using your primary navigation. But in that case, redesigning your primary navigation would be a much more effective use of your time, budget and site space!


OK, here come my secret tips and tricks for great navigation design. As I said earlier, a perfect blend of schemes usually works best to get your customer closer to the close. It always depends on the type of product/service you are offering. However, keep these pointers in mind as you create the structure for successful and painless movement throughout your website and you’ll be on the right track.

· Use standard icons and conventions whenever possible. For example, people recognize what a shopping cart is for and know that blue-underlined text means hyperlink. Leverage on what they already know. Contradict it just to be “original” and you will lose sales.

· Keep it simple and make it intuitive. Ease of use makes for happy customers.

· Keep your scheme consistent from page to page. Your customer should only have to figure it out once.

· Show the basic structure of the navigation system. It helps your visitors feel more confident, and more confidence leads to more sales.

· Stick to clear, concise labels for your navigation elements. This is not the place to get creative or coy.

· Use text for navigation elements; avoid graphics. Graphics take time to load, and also don’t always load properly. Some folks even go so far as to have images turned off in their browsers, in which case, all those pictures you created to direct your traffic were a waste of time and money. If you feel you must use pictures, always include accompanying text.

· Don't link everything to everything. Less is more. Anticipate where your customer is likely to go and build that into your scheme. And above all, keep your links within your page; don't require your customers to use their browser's back button. If you do, you hand them a chance to leave your site completely. (On the other hand, never disable their browser’s back button. Hijacking their computer is a great way to lose customers forever.)

· Don't overuse embedded links, and make sure they clearly identify what they link to.

· Test! Test! Test! On lots of different users, different browsers, different viewing options. Remember the Mom Test <>? Do it!

· Provide help, online and offline.

Again, it’s all about designing your information architecture around the searching patterns and psychology of your visitors, not coming up with something that looks cool but sends your visitors clicking for the hills. When you make it easy for your visitors to find what they want to buy quickly and intuitively, more of them will buy. And that's the point, isn’t it?

© 2001 Future Now, LLC

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