Site Navigation, Where should I start?

by Alex Duncan  |  April 9, 2009 – 2:18 am


Confusing Site NavigationYesterday a friend who runs a start-up in Beijing asked me about website navigation and I put a few minutes research into my answer so I thought it would be worth posting it here too.

There is lots out there on the web on good practice in website navigation, but here are the key advice and rules that I find most useful. I’ve often read that for deep menus on sites with vast libraries of content the general rule is to aim for between 7 and 9 links at each level of the menu. The thinking being that simplistic rule is that the human brain when skimming a page can only take in and understand roughly 7-9 items at a glance. This number is also affected by “the paradox of choice” which says that Humans, weak as we are, when presented with to much choice more often choose to do nothing. So just following this simple rule you can’t go too far wrong, but there is far more to it than that.

We haven’t even begun to look at what these links say and how they say it, but before starting to think about any site navigation sit down and think about who will be using it and what they will want to find.

All too often people start designing site navigation from “what content do I have and how would I like to see it organised?”

I’ve very recently worked on a new homepage design for, the design has yet to be implemented so don’t look now, but when I started the process I sat down with Mike Moffitt the son of the founder and asked him a bunch of questions about who would be visiting their site and what they might want to find when they got there. It wasn’t rocket science and it only took a few minutes, but out of it came a very clear list of 3 key stake holders and about 10 questions that would be in their minds when they visited the site. As a designer I had a clear mandate for how the content on the homepage redesign should be prioritized. This isn’t something you should do only for the front page either, think of customers at different points of their journey around your site, what link do you need to add or highlight to guide them on to the next step.

As a guide here are some general questions a visitor may have in their mind:

  1. Where am I in the site?
  2. What can I do here?
  3. Where can I go to from here?
  4. Where is the information I’m looking for?

(borrowed from here)

So in general navigation should be:

  • structured (not too many links at each stage)
  • grouped (don’t mix “Login” and “Bread & Cakes” in the same menu)
  • semantic (is the wording of a link clear will the user get to where they hope to go?)
  • sufficient (is there a link to everywhere they need to go from the page which they are on)
  • non-bewildering (are there too many links, will the user know where they should go)

I’ve rushed through this topic and come to some pretty half baked conclusions so I will do my best to come back and flesh it out in coming weeks.