Simplifying Your Website Navigation
Good website design is important, but so is good information architecture (IA). What’s the difference between these two? Well you can’t have good design without a user-friendly and functional page hierarchy.
Throughout the planning, concept and design stages, IA is dynamically intertwined with web design. Your website’s navigation menu must be customised so that it maximises your websites functionality but minimises its complexity to the user. One simple way to achieve this apparent dichotomy is to reduce the number of pages within your website and then to ensure that all content is logically arranged and labelled so that it can be easily found by users.
There are 3 basic IA layouts that are used:
- Single page site – mainly used for portfolios, single products or for contact details. Everything the user needs is on one multi layered page. Here is a single page site example.
- Flat site – Multiple pages with no hierarchy. Each page is as important as any other and within the drop down boxes for each of the main categories, there are few if any subcategories. Here is a flat site example.
- Hierarchical page site – This is the most common layout with multiple subcategories within main categories, accessed via the home page. Here is a hierarchical site example.
The most important starting point is to determine the use of your website – what is its purpose? From there you can determine which of the three basic layouts you need. If the aim is to sell multiple products on an e-commerce site, then clearly a hierarchical layout is needed. On the other hand if you are a sole trader and the purpose of your website is to present your contact details and to profile your skill, service or trade, then a simple single page site may suffice.
The second most important point is – what information will the user need to make a decision? In other words, can all the content be presented on a single page? Or must the user be able to drill down through different categories and subcategories to make a decision?
Remember, you do not want unnecessary pages on your website – keep it as simple as possible. This will make user navigation much easier for visitors and more user-friendly.
Tips on categories and labels
It is important to ensure that the categories and subcategories are logical groupings for your business and that users will indeed be searching for these groupings. So for example, if you have a car dealership your main categories may be ‘new’ and ‘used’ cars with ‘4-cylinder’ and ‘6-cylinder’ as subcategories, whereas a specialist mechanic may have ‘4-cylinder’ and ‘6-cylinder’ as his main categories. A clothing site may have ‘men’s’, ‘women’s’ and ‘children’s’ as their main categories with items such as ‘jackets’, ‘shirts’ and ‘trousers’ as subcategories.
The over-riding factor here is to have as few categories as possible and for each main category to be a logical grouping, relevant to your business and the user. Having too many category options, confuses the user.
The correct labelling of categories and subcategories is critical to simplifying your site navigation. This goes hand in hand with knowing what your user will be searching for on your site. As with the car dealership example above, users looking for ‘new’ or ‘used cars’ may rarely search for ‘4-cylinder’ cars – although that could be a realistic option and may be worth including as a subcategory, depending on what car customers are looking for.
Tips on labels: keep label names short and simple – and consider using images and descriptions for less familiar items or conversely, for more popular items. An example of images for more popular items is the online Apple store for iPhones and for less familiar items, such as car models within a corporate brand, is the Subaru site.
Simplify your site navigation by understanding the purpose of your website and how users searches for information. This in turn will determine your layout. Maximise site functionality by minimising the number of categories, ensuring that the categories and subcategories are clearly labelled.
This will result in increased functionality, less confusion and improved user-friendliness. All of which leads to better website conversions.
Meg is a Project Manager/Producer at Cornerstone with a special interest in conversion rate optimisation. She has a business analysis background and thinks the web would be a better place if everyone looked at their web statistics daily.