Over the years website navigation has changed.  In the early days the menu generally appeared on the left in a vertical column.  Then it migrated to be a horizontal strip under the main banner.  These days it’s frequently presented as a ‘hamburger’ (three little lines on top of each other), a device created to use less room on smaller screens, now many of us access websites on mobile devices.

However, there are some rules of navigation that haven’t changed – but are frequently ignored.  At the core of all these rules is clarity.  How easy is it for your website visitor to find what they’re looking for?

How long should a menu be?

When it was in a column on the left, the length of the menu could be as long as you wanted (that doesn’t mean that a long menu is good practice), but when it went to a horizontal presentation a long menu looked clunky, because if it was longer than fitted on a single line, it wrapped onto another line and that almost always looked untidy. 

It was a good discipline to ensure everything fitted on a single line, no long page tags and fewer of them.  It meant that the site owner had to think carefully about how the site was organised.

Yes, there are sites with hundreds of pages, but they still only have a limited number of choices on the navigation, that take you to submenus with additional options.

Some sites have more than one menu with one above the banner – usually for the standard pages, such as ‘About, Contact, and maybe the blog or news page, leaving the main menu below the banner for the main content pages.  Often, another menu may appear in the footer, with more options too.  Frequently things like the privacy notices, terms and conditions, disclaimers, etc are all tucked away in the footer.

There are all kinds of reasons why multiple menus are poor practice.

  1. People don’t always see things that aren’t where they expect them to be
  2. Most website visitors are familiar with a single menu and, if it’s not on the main menu, they assume it doesn’t exist
  3. Nobody HAS to visit your website, if finding what they’re looking for is hard work they’ll probably search for something ‘easier’.

What goes on the menu tab?

The first website I ever wrote was for a company I was director of, it had menu tabs that advised:

What we do

How we work

Who we are

I thought this was quirky and a bit different to Services, Contracts, and About Us.  What I hadn’t realised was that nobody was interested in us, they were only interested in what they got.  They weren’t immediately sure what these notations meant.  They weren’t looking for What we do, they were looking for ‘Services’ or, even better, given we were a training company, ‘Training courses’.

Steve Krug says it very well in his book Don’t Make Me Think;

When I’m looking at a page that makes me think, all the thought balloons over my head have question marks in them.  When you’re creating a site, your job is to get rid of the question marks.

In other words, don’t get clever – go for the obvious!

The secret to good navigation is ‘keep it simple’!