1. Technology

Effective Web Navigation

Helping Your Readers Find Their Way Around Your Site

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If people cannot navigate through your site, they will quickly leave. Thus, designing effective navigation on your Web site is crucial. But there are some basic things you need to do before you can start worrying about rollovers or links, images or flash.

Information Architecture

Before you can even start to plan your navigation, you need to define your site's information architecture. Information architecture is the taxonomy or structure of your Web site.

Some common taxonomy elements on a corporate or business Web page are:

  • Products - the products or services the company sells
  • About - information about the company
  • Investor Relations - information specific to investors
  • Support - help for customers

Some common taxonomy elements on a personal Web page are:

  • About Me - information about the page author
  • Favorite Links - links that the author likes
  • Friends and Family - information about the author's friends and family

Organization

Once you've determined your site architecture, you need to decide how to organize it. You might have it all live in one directory, and just link to the major pages from your front page. Or you might have all the sub-pages separated into directories.

When thinking about your organization, you should think about how your customers might wander through it. Flow charts and storyboards can help you map out exactly how you would like to encourage your readers to use the site. You might want to map out several paths for your readers to use.

Navigation Design

Once you have an idea of the architecture and organization, you're ready to think about the design of the navigation. There are several things you should consider in deciding on your navigation design:

  1. Accessible
    The navigation of your site is possibly the most important part of any given page. So it should be as accessible as you can make it. This means avoiding special effects like Flash, Java, or JavaScript as your only navigation method.
  2. Meaningful
    Keep your navigation meaningful. Make the links clear - don't try to get cute or use terms that are internal to your organization. Someone who has never been to your site before should know immediately where the link will take them.
  3. Understandable
    If you want to use images for your navigation, make sure that there is some text associated with them. " Mystery Meat Navigation" is the use of non-descriptive images as navigation, and it's much more common than you might think.
  4. Prevalent
    Your navigation should appear on every page of your site. While you don't need to have identical navigation, the basic structure should be the same throughout the site, with changes used only to indicate location within the hierarchy.

Once you've designed your navigation, then you can begin to use it. Keep in mind that it is really tempting to change your navigation structure while you're in the middle of implementing it. But if you decide to do this, be sure that you're making the change globally and that it fits with the original goals of your taxonomy and information architecture. My recommendation is to implement the original design and wait a week or two. If at that point you still want to change it, and the change will work, then go for it. You might just find that your planning and preparation were ultimately correct and not change it at all.

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