Grouping Navigation Areas of a Website

2006 June 19
by Scott

In doing web design - especially for smaller sites and/or smaller companies - I often run into clients who want to have one list of navigation links.

Since websites have such a large number of links associated with them, it is common to create multiple navigation areas, loosely grouped by priority and/or intent. It is well documented from extensive user testing that online users “scan” a webpage to find what they are looking for as opposed to “reading” it. Also, from past experience the typical user expects to find links either along the top, left, or bottom of the page.

As a list of links becomes longer (more than approx. 10 items) it is much more difficult to “scan” the list and find a particular link – the desired link gets “lost” visually, like trying to pinpoint one particular word on an entire page of text – it can be done, but you might pass by the word a couple of times before finding it. Simply put, it is easier to find what you are looking for in two groups of 5-10 links each instead of one long list of 10-20 links.

Larger sites (like msn.com or major news sites) have so many links that they have no option but to have long lists, but even then they try to group them as best they can.

On smaller sites, often there are three groups of links:

  1. the main “category” links (the main information-based sections of the site) - typically on the left or at the top of the site
  2. utility links (action-oriented or interactive areas of the site) - usually at the top right of the site, smaller than the main category links
  3. Footer/legal/corporate links (often including links such as “corporate info”, “employment”, “contact us” etc. as well as legal info)

It should also be noted that a user with a specific goal in mind (like coming to the site just to send a comment or look for job postings) will typically look a little harder for a particular link than someone who is just looking for info. This allows you to emphasize the more general info links, and group them more prominently, and slightly de-emphasize the “specific goal” links. The end result is a site that is much easier to navigate by both types of users.

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