Best Practices For Designing Website Navigation

6 min read

Navigation of the site is the key to success or failure of every visitor interaction and can have a huge impact on conversions, sales, and bounce rates. A well designed navigation can help users and search engines discover and engage with content, products, and services that your company offers. 

It is how you can provide your users with a way to travel through your website or app, navigating from point A to point B, on the path of least resistance. It tells your users where they should go to be successful. A good rule of thumb is when the visitor lands on your website, they can find what they need within 3 clicks.

A good navigation design can reflect your brand, bring important knowledge to customers, give them confidence in your products and services, bring credibility to your company, and promote usability. 

So how can you ensure your guided navigation is designed for success? In this article, we will look into some common types of website navigation, their pros and cons, and some best practices to follow when designing. 

Common Types Of Web Navigation:

1. Horizontal Bar Navigation:

Top horizontal bar navigation is one of the two most popular kinds of site navigation menu design patterns and it’s used most frequently as the primary site navigation menu. This menu appears in the header of a site. It is perfect for placing a few primary and very descriptive products or services and calls to action.

apple horizontal bar navigation self-service
Credit: Apple

2. Hamburger menu:

The hamburger menu is the three lines in the corner of the screen that, once clicked on, provide a menu of more navigational options. It is used often for mobile and is quite recognizable and clean. However, they are proven to have lower click rates, making them less efficient in certain cases because users have to follow through more steps. They are also located in a less thumb-friendly location on mobile (top corner of the screen). 

google maps hamburger menu self-service

uber hamburger menu self-service
Credit: Uber

3. Breadcrumbs:

Breadcrumbs are a secondary level of navigation that shows your users where they are on the site and what steps they took to get there. This is especially helpful if they want to get back to a certain page or feel lost in their navigation. However, this additional text can possibly clutter your page. 

casio breadcrumb menu self-service
Credit: Casio

4. Footers:

These are located at the bottom of the page and include an organized list of links to all different pages across the site. What’s great about footers is since they are at the bottom of your page, you can feel free to make them as huge as possible, including a ton of information. But, the more you include, the bigger the body of text you will have, and the more users will feel intimidated to comb through and find the link they are searching for. That is why footers should not be the only navigation source on your site (especially since they are located in a more difficult-to-find place) but an additional one for resources less commonly needed. 

amazon footer menu self-service
Credit: Amazon

5. Tab bar:

The tab bar is most often used for mobile and is fixed to the bottom of the screen, providing a menu of a few main pages to navigate through. It is easily visible, provides a constant reminder of the current page you are on, and is thumb-friendly (easy to reach at the bottom of the screen). However, it is far more limited to the amount of navigational options and it takes up space on your screen. 

doordash tab bar self-service
Credit: DoorDash

6. Vertical/sidebar navigation:

This one’s usually found on the left-hand side of the screen, providing a list of navigational links at different primary, secondary, or tertiary levels. It provides a natural top-to-bottom scanning for users and each item can carry equal weight, but it can take up a lot of space on the page and all the items can’t always be seen on one screen without scrolling.

Credit: Nua Bikes

7. Call-to-action buttons:

These are used to motivate your user toward a certain action. They are especially helpful in getting your customers where you want them like subscribing, checkout, or signing up for a free offer or promotion.

shopify call to action self-service
Credit: Shopify

8. Dropdown fields:

Dropdown's get a lot of heat. These are the boxes that open with a click and allow you to choose from a list of predetermined options. They are great for providing a large amount of content in a small space, being flexible to change with a simple design, and allowing you to collect predictable input that could be misconstrued in a search box with things like typos. However, they are not very user friendly as they can be hard to click through without a mouse, they can easily be passed over, they hide some available options if the list is too big, they can slow your users down and are not always visible to search engines (especially if powered through Flash). 

dropdown field self-service
Credit: Design Smarts

9. Search box:

Speaking of search, it can actually be used as navigation as well. It is great for leading your user directly to their desired resource, streamlining the number of steps they need to take. However, without an integrated search, not all information will be presented, and they may not find the answer they need. 

microsoft integrated search self-service
Credit: Microsoft

Best Practices for Navigation Design:

  1. Choose the right kind of navigation for your content type. Your navigation design should align with your user’s resolution goal and the destination you are aiming them toward. Therefore, you should choose the right navigation types that best fit these aims, whether that be the hamburger and footer, or any combination of what you deem fit. 

  1. Focus on your hierarchy and organization. When figuring out how to best provide for your users' navigation, you must first decide what content is most important, and therefore, should be easiest to access. Creating a level of hierarchy based on relevance and importance for your user is the most convenient way to organize your site's information. 

  1. Use descriptive and meaningful text. Being as descriptive as possible with meaningful labels on your menus, buttons, and calls-to-action is important to providing any clarity to users who may not know which route is best.  

  1. Streamline your navigation bar. While being descriptive is important, it is also crucial to keep things concise. Clarity is key here. You want to find the right balance between providing enough information without providing too much and becoming overbearing. To do this, you should avoid any large walls of texts or links that could intimidate your user, stick to single phrases, and organize large groups of content into easily digestible categories. Notice how in the example below, Intuit uses icons in their navigation bar to provide more clarity and recognition, while reducing clutter. 

intuit navigation bar self-service
Credit: Inuit

  1. Use visuals to encourage users through engaging navigation. Another great way to keep things concise but also clear is through visuals. This could be product images, icons, live content, etc. This will help your users see exactly what they need without even having to read any text. Plus visuals are more engaging to look at, and therefore, can increase click-throughs. Why just say the product’s name when you can show its image as well?

sony navigation visuals self-service
Credit: Sony

  1. Fix your menu to its location on the screen. Whether it be the top navigation bar or a sidebar, fixing it to its location allows users access to it while they scroll down a page’s content. This brings even more ease, helps remind the user where they are, and it has even been found to get users to scroll further on a page and increase conversion rates by as much as 33%. 

  1. Use standardized and universal placements for easy-to-find access. Regardless of what type of navigational tools you use, placing them in their common found areas is a good idea (meaning, keep your hamburger in the top corner, tabs at the bottom, etc.) When users come to your site looking to navigate to a certain topic, they look in the same standard places for navigation menus. So, don’t get too creative here and stick with the basics. 

  1. Don’t forget the power of the footer. Odds are, your site has tons of pages and helpful resources. Trying to organize and combine all of those into one menu can get messy and complicated. So, using footers for less essential information is a good way to streamline your menu while still providing content for all different audience needs. 

  1. Use calls to action to your advantage. Guiding users with prompting buttons like “read more” is a great tool for enticing them to continue clicking through your site. Rather than presenting a ton of content on one page, use these calls to action to encourage more click-throughs to valuable information. 

  1. Provide an easy way to backtrack. Users often lose track of how they landed on certain pages, what their initial query was, or how to get back to where they started. It is easy to fall into a research hole when diving into different subjects on any given site. But, providing users an easy way out of the hole and back to past steps and pages they landed on is a great tool to prevent users from abandoning when they get lost. It encourages exploration and increases comfortability. You can do this with breadcrumbs or just back arrows, but breadcrumbs do a good job of outlining every step that was taken. 

  1. Make sure it’s all responsive and convenient on mobile. A large group of your users will be navigating your site on a mobile device, so tailoring the experience is crucial. You may want to consider using different navigation menus to save space on your screen and placing them in more easy-to-reach places for convenient finger reaching. 

Test & Improve

The best way to create a successful navigation design is by discovering what your customers are currently doing. Find out how your audience currently navigates your site, where the highest traffic areas are, the biggest pain areas, what leads to the most and least click-throughs, and use this information to make educated choices on your improvements. 

It is also important to remember that your navigation design is crucial, but not the only factor at play when it comes to customer success. Learn more about some best design practices, how to leverage color on your site, and what the top companies today are doing well with their self-service designs

I love to write with one goal in mind - to help you build amazing customer experiences. Our content is tailored to help you understand your customers, design great products and deliver world-class customer self-service. I share my knowledge and experience through my articles, videos, podcasts, templates, and more - so you can take your customer experience to the next level.‍

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