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The case against universal navigation

There is no reason to mention all features of the site on all pages. Instead, select a very small number of highly useful features and limit pervasive linking to maybe five or six things like search. — Jakob Nielsen Is Navigation Useful?

Website navigation is difficult. Labelling and organising content can be a nightmarish exercise in interpreting users’ idiosyncratic ways of conceptualising and labelling your services.

Long navigation lists are noisy, but omitting items suggests they don’t exist at all. Throw in a host of design problems caused by limited screen space, and you have a thorny set of questions to untangle.

The Suffolk Libraries universal navigation

The Suffolk Libraries universal navigation menu appears on lots of pages in a sidebar. We're considering removing it from the website.

We should be wary of answers that consist of simply getting rid of things, even if they come with a pleasingly minimalist pay off. Providing too little information for users is just as bad as overwhelming them – both result in frustrating experiences and, ultimately, users giving up and going elsewhere.

Still, it does make sense to at least ask whether we need a universal navigation menu on all sites on all pages all of the time. Here are some things you need to consider if you’re thinking of taking this approach:

Most users come to your website to do one thing

Checking your analytics and watching people use your website can be a sobering experience. All those news items and sweating over the look and feel, all for someone to come along, find a plain old table containing a phone number they need and then leave, all in 10 seconds or less. Your bounce rate is in the 70-80% range.

Worse (or better, actually) they don’t even make your website. Instead, they google the number and get it from the top search result.

The chances are any given website visitor wants to do one thing only. They really don’t need to see Kessingland Library events if they just want to find out how much the library charges for overdue books. In other words, universal navigation is of little use as long as they can get to their information quickly. If they can’t get to their information quickly then they may reach for a navigation menu.

So if you’re ditching universal navigation make sure you:

  • Use search engine friendly language: in other words, use the words and phrases your customers use when they look for you and your services on Google. Most of the time this simply means not using jargon and internal brand names, unless your customers use them. Sometimes it can be a bit more complex: for example, our customers use charges and fines interchangeably, so it makes sense to use both words on our Charges, fines and what you can borrow page.
  • Have a good search engine: when users can’t find information on your site they’ll maybe reach for the search engine. Put it somewhere easy to find (top right corner) and make sure it actually works. If you’re using WordPress you’ll need to use a search plugin as the default engine is weak. Google Custom Search Engine is an excellent alternative.

Your home page will do a lot more work

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Designing home pages can be difficult, especially when you’re figuring out whether a link should appear in the navigation menu or main content area – there’s only a main content area to worry about. Duplicating links can be confusing as you present users with a choice they don’t need to make.

The Suffolk Libraries home page

The Suffolk Libraries home page has a content area of links to deeper content and a universal sidebar. Duplicate links can be confusing. Do we need both areas?

On the Suffolk Libraries website we’ve opted to limit the main navigation menu to top level sections. We found that users were overwhelmed by the sheer number of links when we also displayed subpages, but this can make deeper content hard to find.

We have a lot of content to structure on the site, and some is hard to find via the main navigation menu. When we did our card sort users often grouped services like the home library service, mobile libraries and the schools library service together. However, the label they used for this group varied widely, from out and about to external services and the somewhat unwieldy services provided outside of library buildings. In the end, we plumped for Community services.

If I run a Find information about the schools library service test the results are mixed. This isn’t necessarily a problem as users are often sent directly to the relevant part of the website via print materials they receive when they sign up for the service, and a Google search for Suffolk schools library service will take you straight there.

If you run a website for a varied, complex service you’ll inevitably make some parts of that service difficult to find by limiting the number of top level sections and by cramming content into places it doesn’t readily belong. A larger home page with a content area set aside for navigation makes it easier to expose more sections to visitors. Government websites are using this ‘mega home page menu’ so much it’s fast becoming a convention – see the Council Toolkit framework for an example of how it works.

The Council Toolkit home page template

The Council Toolkit home page template provides an example of a content only navigation menu. It allows designers to expose more links to users.

Some tasks are complex and require contextual navigation

Let’s say a user is looking to find and reserve a book. They don’t know which book and pick up on the New in and recommended section of the website from the home page.

This is split into several subcategories (including fiction, local interest and staff picks). The user likes the suggestions and wants to explore more.

Without universal navigation you’ll have to use alternative techniques to allow the user to complete their task. Again, this is an opportunity to improve the user’s route through the website to task completion as you can concentrate on providing links that are relevant to their current task, rather than links to every section.

There are 3 main ways to guide users through the website:

  • Inline links: Links within the text, perhaps marked up as a list. Most of the time they’re handcrafted by the page author.
  • Breadcrumbs: If you’ve structured your site well an automatically generated breadcrumb will provide users with a clear route through the current section, and back to the home page.
  • Sidebar: Sidebars are any secondary content separated from the main page content. Most of the time they’ll be automatically generated by the CMS, and possibly comprise a list of pages in the same section of the website.

As Jakob Nielsen says at the top of this article, some navigation elements may be relevant to all users, or at least a lot of them, all the time. Links to help, search, contacts and social media accounts are obvious examples; in the case of the library service using the catalogue and logging into your account often represent the final action in a chain of tasks.

The Suffolk Libraries toolbar

The Suffolk Libraries website toolbar appears on every page.

Often these links are actions rather than sections of the website; in fact, you might describe them collectively as a toolbar rather than a navigation menu.

Possible problems

In my experience of watching users try and complete tasks on websites, navigation menus are rich in information scent. They’re concise, containing words users recognise – and because they’re such a well established convention their meaning takes little interpretation.

Although few users need access to all website sections from every page of the website, it’s reassuring to know they could reach a far away section, especially if they’ve ended up in the wrong neighborhood.

Perhaps more importantly, universal navigation gives users an overview of what an organisation does. While it’s true most of them are only interested in doing one thing as quickly and effortlessly as possible, it would be nice to think we can show these users other aspects of our service.

As with all design, there’s a balance to be struck between competing user requirements. The positives of ditching complex, universal navigation perhaps outweigh the negatives. There are some websites where you really do want to be able to reach everything from anywhere – portfolios, for example, but for more complex, task driven sites it will probably pay to make navigation focused and contextual rather than universal.

We’ve started moving away from displaying a complete navigation menu on every page of our site. For example, none of our microsites display it. The Summer Reading Challenge section displays a contextual sidebar:

The Summer Reading Challenge page

The Summer Reading Challenge page's sidebar contains links to reading challenge information rather than a universal navigation menu.

We’ve already removed most subsections from the universal navigation menu. It is worth bearing in mind that users get used to finding information in a certain way; when they come to your site they may head straight for a particular link without even thinking. We found this was the case when one user had got used to locating the Mobile libraries link in the universal navigation menu. She found a new link in the home page content area, but did provide some feedback. When you change your website you will always upset some users as you’re forcing them to relearn your UI.

However, we feel the benefits will outweigh any short term annoyance – we’ll remove our universal navigation menu sometime soon.